by Suzanna Koster
AALSMEER, The Netherlands, April 3 (Xinhua) -- For decades the Dutch environmentalist Nol Verdaasdonk has warned against the dangers of unsustainable farming in the country. This week, he feels like he lost a battle.
Wednesday the European Union lifted the milk quota system that limited the amount of milk farmers could produce, and also put a cap on the number of milk cows and the manure they produce. Now that cap is gone.
The head of the local environmental group Brabantse Milieufederatie in the province of Noord-Brabant, one of the most intensive animal husbandry sites in the Netherlands, was clearly upset with the lift of the quota.
He fears that the country's livestock production, which is already one of the most intensive in the world, will intensify further and increase the manure surplus.
"We already have an unimaginable manure problem in the Netherlands. The system has completely gone crazy," the 63-year old Verdaasdonk told Xinhua.
The Netherlands has had a manure surplus for decades. Measured by EU standards, the country produces more manure than its soil can bear. The EU allows for 50-milligram nitrogen per liter ground and surface water and 170 kg phosphorus per hectare.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutritious for plants, but too much of either pollutes the soil and kills animals, fishes and plants, says Sijas Akkerman of Natuur and Milieu, another Dutch environmentalist group.
"It ends up in surface water and causes algae, which in turn causes pea soup and kills dragonflies, fish and plants growing in the ditches that surround farm lands," said Verdaasdonk.
The biological quality of much of the Dutch surface water was substandard between 2009 and 2013, according to the Compendium for the Environment, a website that tracks environmental facts and figures. Only 36 of 720 of water bodies tested "good." One of the main causes for the low quality was manure, measured by the amounts of nitrogen and phosphor.
Akkerman is also concerned for a possible rise of ammonium, a biting, toxic gas, if farmers keep more cows. It comes out when pie and manure mix in the farmers' slurry tanks and then ends up in the environment.
The Dutch government recognizes that it has a "considerable manure surplus" which slightly increased in recent years. Cows are responsible for two thirds of the manure, according to the Compendium voor de Leefomgeving.
Late 2014 the government passed an environmental law allowing dairy farms to expand on the condition that they can dispose of their manure, according to Jan van Diepen, spokesperson of the Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs.
Since Monday dairy farms have to partly dispose the extra manure resulting from expansion on their own land, depending on their phosphate excess. Farms without or with small phosphate excesses are exempted, Van Diepen told Xinhua.
This law makes unbridled growth of the number of cows in the Netherlands impossible, Sharon Dijksma, state secretary of Economic Affairs told the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur on Tuesday.
"Economists who looked into this say that this means that you can produce about 20 percent more milk with about 9 percent more animals," she said.
The dairy industry is economically important for The Netherlands. It accounts for 8 percent of the Dutch trade surplus, according to the Dutch Dairy organization (NZO).
EXPORT AND DUMPING
The excess manure is mainly exported to Germany and France, where there is a market for fertilization through manure, said Harry Luesink, researcher on manure and ammonium of Wageningen University.
As transporting unprocessed manure is expensive as the water it retains makes it heavy, farmers need manure-processing sites. But these are controversial in the Netherlands.
For example, since 2008, Frans Meulenmeesters, who owns a pig farm in Elsendorp, has been trying to get construction permits for a manure-processing site. All of his three permit requests were rejected. Those living in the vicinity objected citing health concerns and smell.
"Everybody wants it, but 'not in my backyard'", said Meulenmeesters. "One day they'll have to give us a permit."
Some manure is illegally dumped, environmentalists say. In recent years there have been some local court cases against farmers violating the laws on how to dispose of manure.
For Luesink, the environmentalists' concerns are unfounded. The environmental laws are so strict that The Netherlands will even achieve a phosphate balance before 2017. "Then the amount of phosphate used for fertilization and disposed of are in equilibrium. So there is no need to reduce phosphates anymore," he told Xinhua.
The ammonium emission could rise if the number of cows increases, but building stables that help lower ammonium output could undo the effect, said Luesink.
In the last 25 years ammonium emission has already more than halved, he added.
But for Verdaasdonk, these measures are not enough to save the Dutch ecology. He pledged to continue fighting for a more sustainable farming industry in The Netherlands.
"We may have lost the battle, but not the war," he said.