With most people staying home during the ‘intelligent lockdown’ in the Netherlands, there are fewer businesses operating; less vehicles on the road; less planes in the sky; less boats on the water and seemingly less pollution in the air. As a city dweller, you may have become so accustomed to the smell of pollution that it barely registers—its presence only noticeable in its absence.
In recent weeks, I picked up a distinct smell wafting all over the city—around Bos en Lommer, The Red Light District and at Mediamatic on numerous occasions. The smell is distinctly and undeniably cow dung. Whilst farmers across this part of Europe spread manure on their farms around this time every year, the season has just started and the smell is particularly strong this year. The fact that we are experiencing this smell to a heightened extent is probably due to lower levels of city pollution. Brussels has also been experiencing this smell in an intensity they have never before, with its power largely attributed to the lack of city pollution that once acted to mask it.
Considering the smell is that of bovine excrement, one may be inclined to assume it is a decidedly unpleasant smell. However, to many, the earthy, decomposing smell can be reminiscent of being outside the pollution of a city and being surrounded by fresh countryside air. There may be a number of reasons, however, to not have such a positive view of this smell over Amsterdam when you look at what the smell of manure really means.
First of all, there is the fact that the widespread availability of manure is the by-product of the highly pollutive animal agriculture industry. The animal agriculture industry is firmly known to be one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water contamination and excessively inefficient land use across the world. The smell of manure over Amsterdam can act as a reminder of how this industry is responsible for 12% of the country’s emissions and how 80% of dairy farms in the Netherlands produce more manure than they can legally use on their farms.
The other twist in the seemingly healthy, muddy scent of manure is that the aroma itself consists of a number of chemicals that are highly toxic. According to Schiffman et al, most of the smells that come from animal manure are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that “are generated by bacterial degradation of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the organic matter”. The odor of the manure acts as a marker of the compounds in the air entering into our bodies, which have been reported to cause “eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, nausea, diarrhea, hoarseness, sore throat, cough, chest tightness, nasal congestion, palpitations, shortness of breath, stress, drowsiness, and alterations in mood”. In addition, these symptoms can affect people’s nutrition if they alter people’s appetite and it can also have an impact on respiratory systems, especially with people with sensitivities such as asthma. That these adverse health effects are reported in communities in closer proximity to industrial animal agriculture act to affirm these consequences of exposure to animal manure.
Therefore, people who associate the smell of manure with fresh air in the countryside are probably just being subjected to the phenomenon of strong smell associations. Just because you’re in the countryside, and smelling the smells of a scene that looks green and idyllic, it doesn’t mean that your nose is clear of harmful, industrial pollutants, however organic seeming the smells may be. Not only could this smell be harmful in of itself, it also represents a highly pollutive industry.