Ingrid de Sain is one of thousands of dairy farmers in the Netherlands who says she sometimes lies awake at night. Since a court ruling in 2019 which found the Dutch were breaking European environmental law, her farm of 100 cows in north Holland has been illegal.

Like the other 2,500-plus farmers whose environmental permission was suddenly invalid, she wants a future where she can earn a living and farm legally again.

The Netherlands is first to face questions scientists believe will soon come to all intensively farmed areas: how can we balance the needs of the environment with the way we farm and grow? Have we reached “peak meat”, like peak oil: so much livestock, so much local pollution, that the only sustainable future is in reduction? They’re questions the US, the world’s largest producer of beef, will also soon have to answer.

In November, the Dutch government announced the first part of a €24.3bn ($26.3bn) plan to buy out up to 3,000 farms and major industrial polluters near protected nature reserves – if necessary, through compulsory purchase, “with pain in our hearts”. It is hugely controversial and only initial outlines have been announced after a year of protests, tense negotiations and a report in October recommending buying out the top 500 or 600 polluters within a year.

The reason is that the emissions of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxide are damaging areas of unique, natural landscape known as Natura 2000 habitats, which the country is bound by EU law to protect. The government says this means reducing local nitrogen compound emissions from between 12% and 70%, including slashing the Netherlands’ 118 million farmed animals by 30% by 2030, according to Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency projections.

Tjeerd de Groot, a member of the house of representatives in the Netherlands and agriculture spokesman for coalition party D66, advocates halving the numbers of pigs and poultry, raising fewer cows and grazing them on pasture, rather than importing grain and soy for feed. “Everywhere you look, there’s a problem with agriculture,” he said, citing the toll the resulting pollution has taken on biodiversity and water quality. “Yes, we have been a big exporter but now we are paying a big price in the environment.”

Environmentalists believe the Netherlands needs to change all elements of its food system chain to provide a good income for different methods of farming. “All the signs are red,” said Natasja Oerlemans, head of the food team at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Netherlands. “The production system of meat and dairy in the Netherlands can no longer be held at this level. That’s been clear for years.”

All eyes are on the Netherlands, according to scientists who believe the world needs action to reduce livestock – rather than relying on voluntary pollution reduction or technological measures that may be unproven at scale.

“The major difference to previous measures is a reduction in livestock numbers,” said Dr Helen Harwatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and climate policy fellow at Harvard University. In 2019 she led a group of scientists calling for action to ensure livestock declines. “We tend to only see technological approaches to reducing nitrogen at the point of production or reducing leakage to the environment, rather than reducing the amount of agricultural production. It’ll be all eyes on the Netherlands to learn from this transition.”

Livestock – farmed both for meat and for dairy – have major environmental impacts, and Harwatt argues that reductions should be part of a broader green action. “Currently, the aspiration globally is to protect more land for biodiversity, reverse biodiversity loss, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, halt deforestation and increase livestock production,” she said. “There are currently far more livestock on the planet than wild animals, and more than three times the human population. Livestock production is forecast to continue increasing, as diets transition across the world to include more animal products. Something has to give and it shouldn’t be the climate or biodiversity.”

Countries such as Denmark and the US may soon face similar predicaments, according to Pete Smith, professor of soils and global change at Aberdeen University in Scotland. “We demonstrated last year that animal agriculture is responsible for 57% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system,” he said. “It has a disproportionate effect on the climate. We have too many livestock for the climate to support, and it’s the intensity of farming that’s the issue. I’m not surprised the Netherlands is taking the lead as it has the biggest problem.”

The US, meanwhile, is the world’s largest producer of beef, chicken meat and cow’s milk, and is the second largest producer of pork. “If we compare foods in terms of their nutrient pollution impact per kilogram produced, nothing is higher than beef,” said Harwatt. “Two-thirds of all crop calories produced in the US are used for feed crops. But livestock production contributes less than 1% to US GDP, and at least twice as much food for humans could be produced on land currently used to grow feed crops for farmed animals.”

Farmers demonstrate with their cows outside the Dutch house of representatives on 28 June 2022.
Farmers demonstrate with their cows outside the Dutch house of representatives on 28 June 2022. Photograph: Jeffrey Groeneweg/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

The US is set to produce 12,820,000 metric tons of beef and veal this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture – a slight fall of 6% due to drought conditions, but with increased production of pork and chicken.

Animal farming has been linked to 17,900 US deaths a year from air-based pollution, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency says agricultural runoff is the leading cause of “water quality impacts to rivers and streams, the third leading source of lakes and the second largest source of impairments to wetlands”. One example is the Mississippi River.

While the US has signed treaties such as the G7 2030 Nature Compact, pledging to halt biodiversity loss, and has a new special envoy on biodiversity and water resources, it is not party to the Convention on Biological Diversity – a potential stumbling block to adopting a Dutch-style plan.

Dr Matthew Hayek, assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University, advocates deciding a point of “peak livestock” and aiming for reduction, rather than trusting climate mitigation strategies such as seaweed additives or manure digesters. “They don’t address part of the problem and their technical efficiency hasn’t been shown at levels of scale – especially when you compare with just producing and consuming less,” he said.

“In the United States, in midwestern states especially, there are still way higher levels of nitrogen concentration and ‘impaired waters’ than are federally allowed. But states can carve out exemptions, and this is what has been done across Iowa and a lot of corn- and meat-heavy states. There’s just not the legal mechanisms or social pressure to address them – especially given you have so much social and regulatory capture by the agricultural industries.

“We also have a certain amount of nitrogen pollution that is ‘allowed’. The way that we deal with a lot of ‘point source’ pollution from industrial animal farming is by spreading it out over fields and miraculously turning it into non-point source pollution, which can’t be strictly regulated,” he added.

Hayek believes “soft” policies such as vegan-by-default menus in New York City hospitals could be combined with local regulation, like the 2010 “total maximum daily load” limit to improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay – as well as increasing public awareness. “Often, we are not even choosing to eat meat; we are choosing because we don’t recognise that there’s a choice not to eat meat,” he said. “We’re also not really combining the micro scale with the macro scale in our regulatory frameworks. We’re looking at one farm or one field, but we aren’t asking the question: is that nitrogen load in that watershed higher than that watershed can handle?

In the small, densely populated Netherlands, it might seem easier to address “macro” policy in a country of 17.8 million people.

But political action here is fraught with conflict, competing interests, anger and distrust.

Farmers complain of hanging in uncertainty for years; say pollution sources such as aviation, road travel and industry are scarcely addressed; and assert their sector has made more reductions than any other. “People in the countryside have been innovating for 30 years to reduce nitrogen – there’s no other sector that has done as much,” said Kees Hanse, a farmer and windfarm owner in Zierikzee who is standing in Zeeland elections for the growing BBB Farmer-Citizen Movement. “We don’t want to get ever bigger but we will continue to innovate and keep trying to create safe food resources for people. Nitrogen reductions are not about buying up farmers. It should come from industry, air traffic, shipping, car movements.”

Meanwhile the idea of suggesting the Dutch should eat less meat was so controversial that it was quietly removed from a 2019 climate awareness campaign by a former agriculture minister.

Some believe that a nitrogen pricing system, part of the new proposals, will help.

“Farmers haven’t done anything wrong: they have just done what the economy dictates,” said MP de Groot. “Because there’s no pricing of pollution, food is too cheap. The damage has been counted by an institute at €7bn a year, in the Netherlands. You should [monetise] that – and then the economy will change.”

Environmentalists like Oerlemans call for scrutiny of other parts of the food chain – including banks and feed producers – as well as help for farmers to transition to better-paid, lower-intensity farming plus services such as nature development, flood plain management and carbon sequestration.

But for dairy farmers like de Sain – one of those the government wants to legalise by making “peak polluters” stop – certainty cannot come soon enough. “Farmers always followed the rules,” she said. “If I could make ends meet with 50 cows, why would I milk 100?”

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