The Netherlands Has Too Much Cow Poop

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Friesian cows graze in the Netherlands, where a strong dairy sector has led to concerns about pollution and illegally dumped poop. . (Photo: drooderfiets/flickr)

From wheels of creamy Gouda to tempting kaasplankje, if there’s one comestible the Netherlands is famous for, it's cheese. Well, all forms of dairy, really.

I lived in the Dutch province of Limburg for a spell in college, and I can tell you firsthand that it was dairy time all the time: dairy for breakfast, dairy for lunch, dairy for dinner, dairy for dessert, dairy for a snack on the train. In my sleep, I dreamt of hangop, a ridiculously thick strained yogurt treat. I put on a few pounds.

The Dutch are rightfully proud of their dairy heritage. The Netherlands is the world’s fifth largest exporter of dairy products, with about 1.8 million dairy cows doing the grunt work.That’s more cheese-producing bovines than Sweden, Denmark and Belgium combined. Without dairy, the Dutch economy would falter. And in this "nation of tall cheese-eaters," residents eat 25% more milk-based products than Americans, Brits and Germans. That's one hell of a place to be lactose intolerant.

But in the small, dense and pancake-flat country, there’s one rather disagreeable — not to mention environmentally harmful — drawback.

As reported by the Guardian, Dutch dairy cows are now producing so much manure that farmers are running out of room to safely (read: legally) dispose of it. As a result, some dairy farms have taken to illegally dumping cow dung in defiance of EU rules established to protect citizens from groundwater contamination. In the meantime, high levels of ammonia emissions resulting from veritable mountains of improperly dumped manure are impacting air quality.

In fact, 80% of farms in the Netherlands generate more manure than they can legally use. These farms collectively pay millions upon millions of euros to have truckloads of excess dung removed and properly disposed of. But in reality, many overwhelmed farms are circumventing the cost and illegally spreading manure on fields. (Per the Guardian, the Dutch are already legally allowed to spread more manure on fields than any other EU nation.)

Some are calling for drastic measures to help tame the Netherlands’ cow poop crisis. The World Wildlife Fund’s Dutch chapter is imploring farmers to help trim the total number of dairy cows on Dutch farms by 40% over a 10-year span to meet climate targets established by the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, the Dutch government is paying farmers to reduce their cow numbers as part of a phosphate reduction plan.

At a crossroads

Dutch dairy cows sniff cheese
Even Dutch dairy cows are discerning when it comes to cheese. (Photo: Koen Van Weel/AFP/Getty Images)

This all, of course, has put the Dutch dairy industry in a bind given that milk-producing cows and environmental stewardship are two things that this exceedingly pragmatic northern European nation holds in high esteem. Recent, rapid growth in the dairy sector has upset the balance between the two.

"The Netherlands is like a big city," dairy analyst Richard Scheper tells the Guardian. "Everyone has a house, good life and enough to eat so they think about nature. The pressure is higher than poorer or more rural countries."

Others believe that a significant reduction in cow numbers would be economically damaging and should be avoided, despite the environmental perils of too much cow poop. Martin Scholten, director of animal science at Wageningen University, tells the Guardian that cutting back on dairy would "ignore our responsibility to feed the world."

A spokesperson for the Dutch Dairy Association echoes this sentiment: "The numbers of dairy consumers worldwide are growing; as exporting countries it would be naive to stop exporting our products."

Legitimate fears about harming the economy aside, there have been some recent innovations geared to help ease this distinctly Dutch problem. In 2016, the Ministry of Economic Affairs committed 150 million euros in developing a poop-to-power scheme in which farmers would be leased anaerobic digesters that convert methane-rich manure into biogas. The farmers would then sell this biogas, a source of renewable energy, back to the government at a 12-year fixed price.

Even Dutch fashion designers are learning to make do, quite literally, with a national surplus of cow poop.

As Sami Grover has noted over at sister site TreeHugger, these efforts are all fine and good, but poop is only half of the problem as far as agricultural greenhouse gas emissions go. Cow burping also contributes to a significant number of emissions. (Ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands come from agricultural operations.)

Whatever the case, there’s no reason to fret about any sort of cataclysmic Dutch cheese shortage. It’s also highly unlikely that the good people of the Netherlands will dramatically adjust their dairy-heavy diets anytime soon. But the next time you visit the Netherlands and notice it’s a bit ... well, rank ... keep in mind that the tasty chunk of Edam that you’re nibbling on is probably one of the reasons why.