For the first time, Justice and Security has analyzed criminal files of manure fraudsters, according to an unpublished study by the ministry. In this way, the department tries to gain insight into the extent of manure fraud in the Netherlands. What has in any case been noticed: the chance of being caught by fraudsters is small.
The five most important findings.
1. Netherlands manure land
The Netherlands is a big boy in Europe when it comes to manure. It produces around 75 billion kilos annually, mainly from livestock farmers who supply the Dutch and foreign markets with dairy, meat and eggs. This is too much manure for the pastures of the farmers themselves, and also for the arable farmers who take over part of it. Manure contains nutrients for plants and vegetables, including nitrogen and phosphate. However, these substances also affect the quality of groundwater and surface water, and nature reserves. That is why not all manure can be ‘spread out’ over the land.
National standards must protect the environment against excessive use of manure. Part of the surplus is therefore removed, processed and processed into other material, or destroyed. The farmer himself is responsible for that process, and strict rules apply. For example, farmers must keep a fertilizer account and be able to show transport tickets when they dispose of the stuff.
In roughly fifteen years, the police and the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority submitted more than three hundred criminal files about manure fraud to the Public Prosecution Service. It is not clear from the investigation how many people have been convicted.
Manure fraud occurs in various forms. Farmers tamper with systems in their stables that make it appear as if they emit less harmful substances. In addition, they falsify transport tickets and their own fertilizer accounts. This makes it seem as if farmers sell their manure surplus neatly and have it spread elsewhere, but in reality they spread the manure on their own land and thus violate nature rules. There are also farmers who have more animals in their stables than they have bought rights for. They produce and earn more as a result, but because they keep more animals, they also emit more toxic substances. At the same time, they save money on the purchase of the rights. Criminal investigations in the poultry sector (chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys) show that some farmers keep tens of thousands of animals more than they declare.
Also read: Manure fraud is ubiquitous in the Netherlands, but is hardly detected
The ministerial investigation is a ‘first estimate of the minimum extent of manure fraud’. How big the fraud really is? That is impossible to say. Most criminal investigations mainly focus on forgery, according to the researchers. In addition, in order to prove the criminal offenses, they write, it is “not always relevant how many kilograms of manure were fraudulently used.”
That these can be staggering amounts is apparent from an analysis of 21 criminal files that the investigation of Justice and Security cites. In those files, it turns out that a total of 185 million kilos of manure has been accounted for ‘not or incorrectly’ in the manure accounting. That smells like fraud. The financial benefit for those involved in those 21 studies was almost 23 million euros.
4. Environment and other damage
The damage caused to the environment is difficult to measure. This is mainly because after a criminal investigation it is often not yet clear where the manure was dumped. As a result, the effects cannot be quantified.
What can be calculated is the environmental damage caused by keeping more animals than is allowed, the so-called ‘exceeding production rights’. The researchers specifically looked at ammonia emissions close to protected Natura 2000 areas, caused by those extra animals. The ecological effects turned out to be greatest in the Natura 2000 area Ulvenhoutse Bos, south-east of Breda. Reducing the livestock to the permitted number of animals would have about the same effect as the national speed reduction from 130 to 100 kilometers per hour, which was implemented in March 2020.
The damage is not limited to the environment; the fraud undermines the entire Dutch manure policy. For example, the Central Bureau of Statistics is supplied with incorrect data about manure. And that data is used for the policy to be pursued. “This means that the effectiveness of the manure policy cannot be properly monitored.”
Read our 2017 research story on manure fraud here: The Manure Conspiracy
Investigations focus too much on one element of the fraud, the researchers conclude: the tampering with documents. It is necessary to find out where the manure is dumped. This makes it easier to calculate the extent of the environmental damage.
They also advocate a national registration of farmers who break the rules. The researchers see a role here for the 29 regional environmental services, which, among other things, monitor the use of environmental permits. They spend a lot of time in the countryside and check whether farmers have the right papers.
Extra manpower for the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority is not a luxury either. In 2019, the service accounted for approximately 950,000 manure transports. Of these, 821 were checked: 0.09 percent. In addition, data research should make it clearer in the coming years which companies have a high risk of fraud.
The researchers emphasize that not only the enforcement of the fertilizer rules must be intensified, but that attention must also be paid ‘to the underlying causes of manure fraud’. It is unclear what exactly they mean by this. They may wonder whether the Dutch role as the third-largest exporter of agricultural products worldwide is sustainable.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 29, 2021