This Letter to the Editor appeared in Trouw (major national newspaper) today.

Don’t forget to think about the combined land uses as a solution for nitrogen emissions, write Guido Enthoven and Daan Groot.

The Cabinet is struggling with nitrogen. There is money for buying out farmers, the speed limit is going down and builders have to work with electric vehicles. Much less attention is given to the possibility of combining different functions of land, while that can offer a solution for various problems.

The Netherlands traditionally has a strict separation of functions. A piece of land has a natural function, an agricultural function, or a construction function such as for houses. This is set out in the environmental plan. This separation creates major differences in land value: a hectare of nature costs around 15,000 euros, agricultural land around 70,000 euros and at a residential destination the value of a hectare quickly explodes into half a million to a few million, depending on the location and the number of houses that may be built.

New forms of agriculture, nature and living

The majority of nitrogen emissions derive from livestock breeding. We are looking for ways to reduce these emissions, sparing farmers as much as possible. One solution lies in allowing innovative forms of function combinations. New forms of agriculture, nature, and living can arise. For example, a pig farmer who starts working with closed cycles, and in exchange for the reduced nitrogen emissions, gets the opportunity to build “informal care houses” behind the farm. These homes are attractive for retirees who want to live outside. Also, think of a farmer who transforms 20 hectares of grassland into a food forest, storing CO2 with agro-forestry and emitting less nitrogen because he keeps fewer cows. As compensation, tiny houses could be allowed on the edges of such a forest, houses with the smallest possible ecological footprint. What this farmer loses in cattle income, he gets back with housing income. This has a number of advantages: an increase in biodiversity, a reduction in nitrogen emissions, an increase in carbon capture and, above all, a new economic perspective for agricultural companies that want to produce less intensively. This also benefits farmers who prefer to keep their livestock up to date as the pressure on livestock is reduced by the farmers that are changing.

This in itself is not a revolutionary idea at all. In the Netherlands, we have known “red for red” and “red for green” schemes for some time. For example, anyone who develops an estate with ten hectares of new nature may set up a country house in return. Sometimes farmers are allowed to build an extra house after they demolish their old stables. However, these arrangements are often fairly bureaucratic and limited in scope, and the application takes a lot of time.

Provinces and municipalities will have to adjust their environmental plans and create much more room for combining agro, nature and living. The first steps have been taken: with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, a test lab has been started and some experiments are in the pipeline in Overijssel.

Of course, preconditions are also needed in the future. New nature and (food) forests must fit into the region. The shape of the buildings must meet the requirements of prosperity and contribute to the quality of the landscape, otherwise, it will become a mess. And the farmer must want it too. There are already farmers who put up family homes, but others do not like it and see it as complicated. That is also not bad: if only 1 percent of the agricultural area in the Netherlands transforms into a combination of agro, nature and living, this will lead to less nitrogen and more happiness for farmers, citizens, and people who enjoy being outdoors.