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Nitrogen report: Nitrogen expert Jan Willem Erisman identifies pluses and minuses

On 5 October, mediator Johan Remkes presented his report on the nitrogen crisis and what he thinks is the best way forward. Leiden University professor and nitrogen expert Jan Willem Erisman responds to Remkes’s recommendations. ‘It’s a step in the right direction.’

What is your first impression of Remkes’s report?

‘Remkes has presented a “line of thought” that consists of 25 recommendations and a short- and long-term approach. He doesn’t provide any new alternatives, but his tone and genuine compassion for farmers has earned him high praise from all parties. He presents three main themes and 25 recommendations. These are neatly detailed and written and presented in plain language. That is Remkes’s strength.

‘I expect that, having included all parties and examined the issue so thoroughly, he will get everyone at the table. But the cabinet will need to regain the confidence of the agricultural sector. Remkes managed to strike the right note by demonstrating a broad understanding of the deep despair he saw among farmers. He also satisfied the farmers’ demands and made related recommendations. He is being praised for this by the agricultural sector. This may provide a good basis for restoring trust between the parties and getting a discussion going on how to flesh out his line of thought.’

‘I expect Remkes to get the parties to the table.’

What do you think of the plans?

‘Besides possibly restoring trust between the parties, Remkes’s work provides clarity on the steps that need to be followed. In the short term, he calls for an accelerated buyout of the 500 to 600 peak emitters, the largest emitters of nitrogen. This will create space to grant permits to the ‘PAS reporters’ (livestock farmers who were previously allowed to expand their farms but later had to apply for a permit for this from the court, Ed.). It will also create space for building permits and the transition from agriculture that Remkes believes is unavoidable, partly because of other societal imperatives around water quality, climate and health.’

‘In his report, Remkes also elaborates on the impasse that has arisen, the human dimension, and the government’s inadequate response. Many of the recommendations he makes were also in his earlier advisory report Niet alles kan overal and in other advice such as Naar Ontspannen Nederland (OntspannenNederland.nl) from 2021. According to Remkes, the government has done nothing with these recommendations, which is why we have ended up in the current situation. He recommends adopting the line of thought in its entirety and trusts that the government will now do so.’

What else stood out?

‘His approach and the 25 recommendations should ensure that nature makes a proper recovery. The most important step he proposes – besides addressing peak emitters in the short term – is to introduce a land bank and create more space for nature by allocating 40% of reductions to “give back to nature” and only 60% for granting permits. Remkes argues in favour of reaching an agricultural agreement and a regional approach that leaves provinces in charge of the implementation.

‘Remkes says that Van der Wal’s map (Minister for Nature and Nitrogen Policy, Ed.) should be taken off the table and replaced by a map with different areas. He suggests red (agriculture), orange (nature-inclusive agriculture), yellow (organic) and green (nature without agriculture) areas. Red areas would allow agriculture for large-scale production at low prices. In the orange areas, supermarkets would be asked to play a stronger role in buying farm produce and thus supporting the farmers’ revenue model. In the long term, Remkes says agriculture must undergo a transition to meet all the challenges. This is where the government will have to provide the right guidance and tools.’

‘The report does not yet provide enough clarity.’

Does the report offer a complete solution that will soon solve the nitrogen problem?

‘On a critical note, the report does not yet provide enough clarity. Furthermore, Remkes pays little attention to market players such as feed suppliers, banks, resource suppliers and buyers of the agricultural products that play a role in agriculture’s earning models and have so far focused on increasing production. Another missing aspect is how the financial resources should be distributed and whether the €25 billion set aside will be enough. Finally, it is noteworthy that it is not yet sufficiently clear who the peak emitters are, what the definition of that term is, and what scope this gives to PAS reporters and permit issuers.

‘The advisory report is a very good step in the right direction, and it is clever how Remkes has communicated it. Now it is up to the cabinet, and I hope they have learnt how to deal with this complex and sensitive problem.’

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