In the Netherlands, many more farmers work without a permit to emit nitrogen than was publicly known until now. In addition to the approximately 2,500 so-called PAS reporters, many hundreds – possibly thousands – of agricultural companies operate without such a nature permit, because they did not apply for it after the law was changed in 2009.
The government is looking for a solution for the 2,500 farmers who previously had permission for their nitrogen emissions on the basis of the Nitrogen Approach Program (the PAS notifiers). Because the Council of State ruled in 2019 that the PAS wrongly anticipated future nitrogen reduction, the emissions of the farmers involved are in fact illegal.
Read also: The government is not going to help 259 farms without a permit anyway
Now it appears that another large group of farms do not have a permit. They were already active before new European legislation forced an application for an environmental permit in February 2009. Many have not done so, sometimes on the advice of the province. This group is known by governments as ‘interim workers’. The provinces and the national government point to each other for a solution.
The existence of the ‘interims’ is well known in the agricultural world and in politics, but has so far received little attention. No one has a clear idea of the size of the group, because there is no central national licensing system. In 2014, the Northern Court of Audit estimated the number at more than a thousand companies in Drenthe alone, and at 250 to 400 in Friesland. Friesland says it is possible that “a number” of farmers now have the correct permit.
The RIVM environmental and health institute estimates that the interim workers are responsible for much more nitrogen precipitation than the PAS reporters. It does, however, use an extremely wide margin. In extreme cases, one-fifth of the precipitation on vulnerable nature can come from interim residents.
As with the PAS reporters, the government is looking for an opportunity for the interim workers to legalize their nitrogen emissions by issuing a permit. This is very complicated with the strict European conditions for nitrogen emissions in vulnerable nature.
The impression has been created several times that the interim workers would receive national help. State Secretary Sharon Dijksma (Economic Affairs, PvdA) wrote to the House of Representatives in 2014 that the government should help the group “given the national character” of the problem, instead of “every province doing it separately”. Former minister Johan Remkes (VVD), who was looking into the nitrogen problem at the request of the Rutte IV cabinet, also advised last year that the national government should help legalize these farmers.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV), responsibility for interim workers lies with the provinces. The Interprovincial Consultation (IPO) believes that the government should find a solution ‘in principle’. The representative of the provinces also refers to the farmers involved. They must “take care of the necessary nitrogen space themselves”. Drenthe also states that if the province discovers a farm without a nature permit, the company must apply for it itself or must ‘cease’ its business activity.
According to the ministry, the responsibility lies with the provinces. They point to the government and to the farmers themselves
Legalizing PAS detectors is an extremely difficult file in the nitrogen crisis. This requires the nitrogen space of farmers who stop their business. After that, the government can allocate that space. So far, this has hardly been possible, because few farmers end their business. Legalization seems even more difficult for interim workers, because, according to the RIVM, they probably allow more nitrogen to be deposited on vulnerable nature and therefore also require more nitrogen space.
The agricultural sector is counting on the government to solve the problems. Farmers’ interest organization LTO sees PAS reporters and interim workers as victims of an unreliable government. During the consultations on the Agricultural Agreement last year, agricultural organizations insisted on help from the national government, according to notes from the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on August 30, 2023.