“You can’t get rid of nitrogen. Chase him through the door, he comes back through the window ”

Lhe information has gone relatively unnoticed in France, it could nevertheless be relevant there in the public debate. At the beginning of September, the Dutch authorities proposed a drastic plan to reduce the pollution of their waterways by nitrates. In a country so strongly attached to economic liberalism and so proud of its agrifood industry, the project has something to surprise by its verticality and its scale: it involves reducing by a third the livestock of the country, one of the largest European producers of animal products. One of the ways to implement it is the buyout by the State, then the dismantling, of large intensive farms.

The radical nature of the project is commensurate with the extent of what the media in the Netherlands sometimes qualify as “Nitrogen crisis” from livestock effluents. Nitrogen (N) is this ubiquitous chemical element that can take benign forms like dinitrogen (N2), but also forms that are problematic for health and the environment. Nitrates (NO3), for example, pollute surface water and contribute to the so-called “eutrophication” phenomenon, which is the cause of the proliferation of green algae on coastlines.

Dizzying concentration of animals

The Netherlands is probably one of the countries in the world where animal production is the most rationalized, the most densified, the most technological. In this small country of 41,500 square kilometers, nearly 100 million poultry and 11 million pigs are raised in buildings. To which must be added 1.5 million sheep and goats, as well as 3.8 million cattle. How far can this vertiginous concentration of animals continue? The Dutch project, still under discussion, brings us back to this implacable reality: a herd cannot grow indefinitely on a finite territory. The country is crumbling under the droppings of its cattle. And to lower the nitrate levels in its rivers, the Dutch authorities seem to resolve to make a decision on the workforce of one of their industrial flagships.

If the reflection made its way in the Netherlands – where it arouses intense controversy within the agricultural unions -, it remains very marginal in the French public debate. In Brittany, however, the environmental and health damage caused by intensive animal production has little to envy “Nitrogen crisis” Dutch. The most common and visible manifestation of this damage is known: it is the famous “green algae” which collects on the Breton coast and which literally poison the municipalities and the neighboring populations. According to figures from the Center for the Study and Valorization of Algae obtained by my colleague Martine Valo, the year 2021 is shaping up to be one of the worst ever recorded.

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