The Flemish Minister of Environment, Zuhal Demir (N-VA), said about the nitrogen crisis in Flanders that “30 tonnes of ammonia is emitted by an average Flemish livestock farm“. Although the minister at first maintained that her figure was correct, we at EUfactcheck made her administration admit that it was a ‘typo’. The claim thus turns out to be false.
On the 3rd of July 2022, Flemish Minister of Environment Zuhal Demir, was invited for a live interview on the news broadcast on VTM, Flanders’ leading commercial TV station. Here she stated that an average Flemish livestock farm emits around 20 to 28 tonnes of ammonia per year. On the 4th of July 2022, farmer’s organisation Vilt (in Dutch), that is very critical of the nitrogen policy of the minister, came with a statement that an average livestock farm emits just under 3 tonnes of ammonia. Both parties based their numbers on those of the Flanders Environment Agency (Vlaamse Milieu Maatschappij, VMM), a government organization that monitors and collects data on environmental pollution in Flanders, but get different results for an easy calculation. Who is right?
Nitrogen crisis in Belgium
Nitrogen is a chemical that is released into the air by transport, industry and agriculture. Too much nitrogen affects our nature in a negative way. The soil gets acidified. As a result, the soil is less fertile, which has a substantial impact on biodiversity. It also causes health hazards like irritated eyes and airways, as well as cardiovascular diseases. In agriculture, the biggest problem is the manure of the animals and fertilization of the fields.
To achieve the European Nature and Biodiversity Goals of 2030, the region of Flanders must drastically reduce its nitrogen pollution. Nature areas nearby need protection from nitrogen, to retain fauna and flora. Flemish policy makers are having trouble solving this problem, because the Flemish agriculture is very livestock-intensive.
This caused a clash within the Flemish government, because the government couldn’t come to a deal internally. This led to insecurity, causing the farmers to go on strike. Eventually, the Flemish government agreed on a nitrogen deal. Nitrogen pollution must be cut in half by 2030. Therefore, the most-polluting farms will need to close business, but will receive a compensation from a special fund for farmers living close to nature reserves.
Yet the European commission took Belgium to European Court of Justice. According to the Commission, Wallonia – the southern region – doesn’t take enough action for the nitrate pollution in ground water. Its northern counterpart, Flanders, is also under scrutiny as it also does not book progress with its nitrate plans. Flanders continues to have some of the most over-fertilised waters in the European Union.
Miscalculation at the Demir cabinet
The amount of nitrogen emissions from Flemish livestock farms in 2020 amounts to 35 752 tonnes. Numbers are drawn from VMM, the Flanders Environment Agency.
In 2020 there were 10 494 livestock farms, only for monoculture livestock farms. Numbers are from the Flemish Department of Livestock and Fisheries based on the numbers of Belgium’s official statistics office.
To calculate how much an average livestock farm emits, one simply has to divide the number of farms by the emissions. This is (35 752 tonnes of ammonia) / (10 497 farms) = 3,4059255 tonnes of ammonia per farm per year. The amount of livestock farms can be a little bit higher due to so-called “mixed farms”, with livestock and arable farming. Hence, an average livestock farm emits around three to three and a half tonnes of ammonia.
EUfactcheck confronted the cabinet with the findings, and asked how it had calculated their figures. Its reaction was that it also used the figures from 2020 of VMM (just like we did), but first provided EUfactcheck with the wrong figure again, just under 30 tonnes per livestock farm. When Eufactcheck insisted that it was a miscalculation, the cabinet finally admitted it. This is remarkable because Vilt had already published a fact-check about the number, three-quarters of a year before.
The cabinet of Demir made a miscalculation, by omitting a zero. The actual emission is just above three tonnes a year, while Demir on tv and in her first reaction by e-mail she stated that was “just under 30 tonnes”. Therefore, the initial figure used by the minister was false.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Lotte van den Hout, Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Belgium
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