Climate change

Hard To Breathe: Livestock Emissions And The Long Road Towards Sustainability

The EU has committed itself to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Farming plays a key role in that goal, since it contributes to 10 percent of the emissions Europe is trying to cut. However, the sector’s lobbying efforts have allowed large players to avoid stricter environmental controls. A small town in Hungary exemplifies the consequences of intensive livestock farming.

You feel it coming. Slowly, it makes its way out of the stable, through trees, over the fence, and along the gravel path. Enters Krisztina’s little house. Without being asked. Just as it invades numerous homes in the neighborhood and pushes its way into the lives of the locals. It is probably the most unpopular resident of Kisbér. It hangs on like resin from an old tree. It stinks. Sweet, sour, rotten and putrid. It is the odour of manure.

With her husband and two daughters, Krisztina (31) came here to escape from urban life. Together, they have fulfilled their dream of owning a small property with a vineyard on the city’s outskirts of Kisbér – a 5,526-souls town about 100 kilometres west of Budapest, Hungary’s capital city. “When we moved here six years ago, we weren’t aware of how persistent the pungent stink would be,” she says.

“The smell is intense, especially on warm days” she says, “I can’t get over it. It’s actually idyllic and quiet here. But just imagine: We can’t air the rooms. No matter how hot it is.” The odour even sticks to the washing she hangs out to dry, she says.

The source is a pig fattening facility. Bakony Bio can feed over 5,800 pigs at the same time. According to the company, 15,000 pigs are processed within the space of one year. They use their slurry to produce energy and warmth via a biogas plant at the site. Krisztina’s property is situated only a couple of hundreds of metres away, with just some trees and a small meadow in between.

The family has invested all their savings, living in a small house, where some of the windows do not even have glass yet but plastic screens to provide some protection. Not from the smell but from the fat flies that came to Kisbér with the slurry. With no financial resources to face a relocation, moving away is not an option for Krisztina and her family.

Bakony Bio and its odour have turned into a local issue in Kisbér. Citizens have been fighting against the company for over 12 years, ever since it started operating.

Chapter 1: Agriculture and the Green Deal

Like the inhabitants of Kisbér, European farmers complain of being suffocated. In their case, by environmental requirements from Brussels within the framework of the so-called Green Deal.

The protests by the inhabitants of Kisbér are much quieter than those staged by European farmers since the beginning of the year. However, both have one element in common: the struggle around the environmental effects of a sector that receives a third of the EU’s annual budget. According to, the company Bakony Bio has also benefited from this aid: between 2014 and 2022, it received more than €2.5 million from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The Green Deal is the main political project of the outgoing President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who defined it as “Europe’s ‘man on the moon’ moment”. Its goal: for the EU to be a zero-emission continent by 2050. This ambition is far from altruistic: Europe is the fastest warming continent in the world.

Moreover, air pollution can cause various health issues, such as heart or pulmonary diseases. “Although the W.H.O. has air quality guidelines, there is nearly no place which meets them, including in Europe”, says Lidwien Smit, professor on One-Health and Environmental Epidemiology at Utrecht University.

On the road to emissions neutrality in the EU, agriculture plays a key role: this sector is responsible for 10 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. And it is not doing as well as other sectors in reducing them.


Agriculture produces 56 percent of the yearly EU methane emissions. And they have scarcely decreased since 2000. Methane is one of the so-called greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.



Farming is also responsible for 94 percent of the EU’s yearly ammonia emissions. Emissions of this air pollutant have remained stable for the last three decades, despite the fact that the EU has set itself an annual reduction rate of 6 percent between 2020 and 2029.


“Ammonia is often overlooked. It contributes to the generation of particulate matter when it reacts with other gases”, Smit says. “About 35 percent of the particulate matter originates in ammonia.” Fine particulate matter is particularly harmful to human health: thanks to its small size, it penetrates into sensitive regions of the respiratory system, exacerbating illnesses such as asthma and contributing to other cardiovascular diseases and premature death. 

Furthermore, within agriculture, livestock farming is the main source of ammonia and methane: It generates more than half of the methane and almost three-quarters of the yearly ammonia emissions in the EU. On farms, for example, ammonia is produced by enzymes from bacteria when the animal’s slurry and urine mix.

“We often forget agricultural emissions and the health issues they bring because we still form the picture that farming is just a natural thing. But 5,800 animals in one place is not romantic. It is a city population”, says Smit.

Chapter 2: The case in Kisbér

Can a pig farm damage the mental health of residents?

There are less than 1 kilometre between the facility and the first houses on Kisbér’s main road. Much closer, on the other side of the farm, there are a few small houses with vineyards on a gravel track. Krisztina and her family live in one of them.

In some periods complaints reach the Mayor Zoltán Sinkovicz and authorities on a daily basis. In Kisbér the odour is sensed nearly every day, especially during the warmer months of the year. It is particularly prevalent in the morning and evening, and is enhanced by the geography: Kisbér sits in a valley, which allows the fumes from the farm to linger for days.

The branch of Bakony Bio Zrt in Kisbér is the company's first of four farms, all of which include not only a livestock farm but also a biogas plant. According to their homepage, the farm in Kisbér is supposed to be its flagship. The facility uses the animals' manure to produce energy, which they present as an example of sustainability and “circular economy”. Emissions such as methane and ammonia are generated in this process.

The farm started operating in 2012. As soon as the facility entered the test phase, several citizens contacted the authorities to protest. Within the first couple of days, over a hundred people joined a collective complaint. 

The cause: An unbearable stench of pig slurry. What happened afterwards: nothing.

“We repeatedly reported this to the local authorities”, says the mayor. “But they often only arrived hours or even days later.” By then, the wind might have shifted, or the stink might have simply disappeared, which made it hard to prove the burden. Today, Sinkovicz no longer calls the authorities.

However, the residents continue their fight. They set up a still active Facebook group, collected signatures, and submitted further complaints. The local authorities have also approached the company. In recent years, they have contacted Bakony Bio, among other things, regarding the lack of reports on environmental measures, emissions, and the handling of slurry, as well as applications for licence extensions.

The conflict reached a crucial point four years ago: Representatives from the regional authorities, the company, the local government and the residents came together to discuss the issue in a town hall meeting.

The owner of Bakony Bio was absent. Péter Pongrácz sent an employee. The reason: The town hall meeting took place in September, 2020, during the hot phase of the COVID pandemic. Pongrácz alleged health reasons to skip the meeting. 

He sent Zsolt Zára instead, who limited his role to reading a letter on behalf of Pongrácz. In it, Pongrácz defends himself by stating that the company is allegedly committed to reducing the odour through a mix of chemical products and technical measures. Bakony Bio has also planted several rows of trees around the farm, “which will produce a pleasant fragrance when they are in bloom.” These are all actions that the authorities had already ordered. But the citizens have not noticed any improvement. It still stinks, they say. 

Károlyné Méssáros, Gábor Zámbó and István Toth are part of the suit against Barony Bio Zrt. They all live more or less one kilometre away from the facility.

“After eight years of pointless complaints and the pointless town hall meeting, we had to climb to the next level”, says  Gábor Zámbó (65). The retired mayor is part of a court case, together with another 118 Kisbér residents. The city joined the case by intervening on the plaintiffs’ side and supporting them with legal costs.

Bence Szentkláray sits in his office in Budapest. He represents the plaintiffs of Kisbér in the case against the nearby pig fattening farm.

For Zámbó, the permanent, penetrating odour is also a psychological burden: “I feel ashamed.” He and his wife used to get visits from friends, especially in summer. But instead of the appetising aroma of a barbecue, there is just the smell of slurry everywhere. “I have a big family, and we were close”, he explains. “My sister, her children, and we lived on the same street – but now they moved away. They don’t even like to visit.”

“Social isolation is a common result, which can have serious mental health risks and also some physical effects”, says Smit.

The case in Kisbér is also one of personal fates. As part of the legal process, each of the 119 plaintiffs had to file a witness report with Bence Szentkláray, the lawyer representing the citizens and the town. 

“There is this middle-aged woman. She is in a wheelchair and suffers from asthma,” says Szentkláray. When she was no longer able to work due to her health situation, she moved to the outskirts of Kisbér with her family looking for a life closer to nature. They had imagined that she would at least be able to sit in the garden by the small stream on warm days. “Now she is trapped where the air and water bring the stench, flies, and rats to her”, explains the lawyer. She has been plagued by depression for some time now. 

It was a long and sometimes challenging process for the 119 people to find the courage to stand up for themselves, even though it was clear there was an issue to report. “In Hungary, it is still common to be afraid to take action against companies or politicians,” Szentkláray says. Some are reporting feeling pressure. “In some cases, people fear losing their jobs if they speak out.” 

The legal case has been dragging on for four years now. The residents had to wait two years for the first verdict. Back then the court ruled in their favour. But certain parties appealed, and the court proceedings continued.

In April this year, the court ruled for the second time: And classified the fumes coming from Bakony Bio as an odour nuisance and attributed them to the plant and the handling of the slurry. Although a health risk was not recognised in this ruling, the court declared that the stench produced by the Bakony Bio Zrt. was a violation of the personal right to respect for private and family life. Some were to be compensated with HUF 300,000 or HUF 500,000  (€1,000 or €1,600), an amount the plaintiffs consider “ridiculous and offensive”.  

The plaintiffs appealed to a higher court.

Neither representatives of Bakony Bio Zrt, the owner, Peter Pongrácz, nor their defence lawyers were willing to give an interview to CORRECTIV. However, Pongrácz sent a written statement.

Regarding the complaints by the Kisbér residents, Pongrácz alleged that odour tests had been performed several times by different authorities and that “each time it was ensured that neither the biogas plant nor the pig farm emits odours that could affect” the local population. According to the owner of the facility, it has “all the necessary permits for its operation”, including the environmental protection permit which has been recently renewed “for the third time”.

He did not comment on the court case, where it has been proven that the odour coming from the Bakony Bio facility in Kisbér was causing unnecessary discomfort to the residents.

Health expert Lidwien Smit agrees with the court that such facilities can be problematic. But not only because of the odour nuisance: “Several studies show that the concentration of ammonia at the ground level is relatively high close to livestock farms”. Long-term analyses show that people exposed to those facilities’ operations experience a decline in lung function, and their risk of diseases rises. 

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has estimated the cost of industrial air pollution for society. The agency takes into account premature deaths and damages to ecosystems, among other things, to do their estimations. These are the EU 30 facilities with the highest cost based on their emissions in 2021. More data here. Source: EEA

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has estimated how much the emissions of facilities like Bakony Bio have cost Hungarian and European society. The estimation takes into account the costs attached to illness, premature deaths or damage to ecosystems. Based on its emissions, the Kisbér farm cost the Hungarian taxpayers a total of €497,000 in 2021 alone.

The case of Kisbér is setting a precedent in Hungary, the lawyer says – in recent months, people from other parts of Hungary have contacted him with similar cases. The town is just one of many places in the EU where the population bears the brunt of such businesses.

Chapter 3: EU’s agri-business

“Agriculture is one of the major hurdles for meeting our environmental goals. We need the Green Deal. But it won’t happen without the collaboration of the sector”, says Lidwien Smit, professor on One-Health and Environmental Epidemiology at Utrecht University.

2024, a year marked in Europe by elections for a new Parliament in Brussels, began with farmers’ protests spread across the continent. Although each country had its own particular nuances, they all shared a common mantra: the EU’s environmental reforms are stifling farmers, especially the small ones, who are in many cases the most dependent on EU subsidies.

“Many of them feel like they have no negotiating power over their income”, says Ottmar Ilchman. He is a pasture farmer and regional chairman of the Lower Saxony/Bremen branch of a German Farmers’ Association. “In Germany, EU subsidies account for 30 to 50 percent of the farmers’ income, depending on the farm type”.

Europe’s farming is overwhelmingly a family business: Nine out of ten farms are family-run. They also are usually not larger than 11 ha.

On the other hand, a small percentage of intensive farms (4 percent) control more than half of the land in the EU. They are typically larger than 110 ha.

At the same time, the number of farms has decreased by a third. While there were 13.7 million in 2005, they were just 9.1 million in 2020; this means that, on average, around 800 farms disappear every day. There is a clear trend towards fewer and larger farms.

In the politically heated months ahead of the June EU elections, farmers have presented themselves as being the guarantee to Europe’s food sovereignty: If environmental regulations put them on the brink of disappearance, the continent will depend on imports to feed itself.

However, the EU is a giant when it comes to exporting agricultural products. In 2022, the EU trade in agricultural products had a surplus of €33 billion, meaning that the bloc sold more abroad than it bought from third countries. And between 2002 and 2022, exports grew faster than imports.

In many cases, the EU is producing more food than it consumes. With exceptions like rice, oilseeds or vegetable oils, the EU produces more crop products than it consumes. The same is true for meat and dairy products.

Spain, for example: The country produced around 5 million tonnes of pork meat in 2022, and exported 3 million tonnes. In this case half of the exports go to countries outside the EU – mainly to China, but also to the Philippines or Japan.

Chapter 4: The lobby and the cattle exception

How cattle farming escaped further controls over their emissions.

The image of agriculture as a predominantly family-based sector has been a recurring argument in the outgoing European Parliament during the debate on a piece of environmental legislation that has not attracted as much attention as others: the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED).

Since 2010, this European law regulates some 50,000 industrial installations of all types – from thermal power plants to chemical companies to refineries, landfills and cement plants. These facilities have to get a permit to operate and must report their emissions. Intensive livestock rearing is also covered by the IED: about 20,000 of the facilities included in the bill are large pig and poultry farms. 

However, the directive only covers 3 percent of all methane and 18 percent of all ammonia emissions produced in the EU by livestock rearing. The limited scope for these two air pollutants is mainly explained by an omission: cattle farming, one of the primary sources of methane and ammonia, is not included.

To close this gap and adapt the norm to changes in the industry, the European Commission proposed an emissions directive reform in 2022. Among other things, it suggested expanding the law’s scope to 10 percent of the largest cattle farms, which would help increase the percentage of livestock emissions covered by the law to 43 percent for methane and 60 percent for ammonia. 

After a lengthy process, a new text for the updated Emissions Directive was adopted by the EU Parliament in March 2024. However, cattle farming was again excluded – at least until 2026, when Brussels will reopen the debate. 

“The Industrial Emissions Directive is probably the first piece of legislation where we have witnessed this strong backlash from large and powerful conventional agriculture and its representatives in Brussels,” comments Marco Contiero, Greenpeace director for EU agricultural policy.

Benoît Lutgen, a Belgian MEP in the Committee for Agriculture, fought against including cattle in the revised Industrial Emissions Directive.

One of the prominent figures leading the opposition against the inclusion of the largest cattle farms in the emissions directive is Benoît Lutgen. Son of a former Belgian senator and Minister for Agriculture and the Environment in the Wallonia region, he was Minister of Agriculture there himself.  

As part of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, the Belgian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) was appointed in May last year to analyse the Commission’s proposal and amend any agriculture-related aspects that needed improvement from the committee’s point of view. 

Lutgen’s report pledged, among other things, for an omission of cattle in the revision of the IED: “Lumping farmers in with industrialists adds to a negative perception of family-run farms”, he wrote. His proposal made it to the final text that was adopted by the Parliament last March. 

Asked about his position on the IED and the inclusion of cattle, Benoît Lutgen, explained that he has always argued for an emissions directive specific to agriculture. “Cows are not waste and pigs are not cement”, he wrote to CORRECTIV. He did not answer whether he had considered the impact of cattle rearing on the ammonia and methane emissions. Lutgen also stressed that he had not only been Minister for Agriculture in Wallonia, but also Minister for the Environment. “One can’t go without the other, and those who think they can advance environmental causes without consulting agricultural players are sadly mistaken!”, he wrote.

“Farming issues are very complex,” explains Marco Contiero. “Most of the time, the rest of Parliament only rubber stamps what the Agriculture Committee decides”. 

Given its decision-making power, Greenpeace conducted an analysis in 2018 to determine whether the members of the former EU Agriculture Committee had any ties to the sector. The investigation found that 25 out of the 46 members of the committee had strong links with agriculture – in some cases, because they themselves were farmers. Four more MEPs had looser connections to the agriculture sector, such as parents who were farmers. “These numbers show that MEPs with links to agriculture and the agriculture industry have a safe majority in the agricultural committee, and can determine the outcome of any vote”, wrote Greenpeace back then.

CORRECTIV has analysed the professional careers and biographies of the current members of the committee, which has just completed its term. Although over two-thirds of the MEPs were new to the committee, the result is similar to that of the Greenpeace report:

23 out of 47 members have strong links to agriculture, most of them being themselves farmers or having been farmers before becoming politicians.

Four further MEPs have looser links with farming, like being the son of a farmer. Since he is a substitute member of the committee, Lutgen has not been considered in this analysis.

CORRECTIV also analysed if MEPs in the current Agriculture Committee have benefited from EU subsidies for the sector. According to, nine of them received a total of 5.6 million euros in payments ranging from a few tens of thousands of euros to a couple of million euros between 2014 and 2022. Two MEPs alone were paid 3.8 million euros.

“These are rich, well-educated landowners who have time to go into politics and be elected. These are not small peasants who have a couple of animals and a tractor”, describes Contiero. “Large-scale farmers and landowners don’t have to lobby. They sit in the European institutions”, concludes the Greenpeace expert. 

Chapter 5: The boomerang effect and the EU elections

“The coming election will decide the quality of environment and life in Europe”, says Sebastian Lakner, agricultural economist at the University of Rostock.

The reviewed, cattle-free Industrial Emissions Directive has already been adopted by the Parliament and by the EU Council, which also took part in the legislative process. At the time of publication, it was only awaiting publication in the EU Official Journal to become law. After that, the Member States will have almost two years to enforce it.

The new European Commission, formed after the June election, will review whether cattle farms need to be included in the law by 2026. Farmers will be playing a key role there: The right-wing populist parties, surging in the polls and set to see a rise in rural areas, are riding the wave of the protests, hoping for a swipe in the EU election.

The demonstrations, which reached the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels, have somehow paid off: In a very significant political gesture, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen personally announced in February the withdrawal of a law that would have halved the use of pesticides. These substances are a major source of pollution and are linked to chronic illnesses such as cancer, as well as heart, respiratory and neurological diseases. 

Some weeks later, the EU Member States approved loosening environmental standards linked to farming subsidies. In addition, some Member States have also eased regulations.

“The EU Commission has torn down many things in the face of the protests. In just a few months, we are jumping back 15 years in terms of environmental policy”, says Sebastian Lakner, agricultural economist at the University of Rostock. Lakner is a co-author of a paper signed in total by 6,000 members of the scientific community arguing for a continuation of the Green Deal. 

However, putting the climate change policies on the back-burner is a short-term solution. “The need for the EU to pursue a stronger environmental focus and reduce greenhouse gases and other emissions is a given”, explains Lakner. “Not only because of the effects we are already observing on nature and human health, but also due to international treaties such as the Paris Agreement.”

Relaxing regulations now does not make the problems disappear, warns the economist. It just leaves the sector with a lot of uncertainty about how to prepare for the future. “What is certain, however, is that the environmental protection measures will have to be taken up again. And then maybe with more stricter and perhaps also abrupt measures due to the increased urgency.” 

Stricter environmental regulations for agriculture and livestock rearing could lead to less production and higher prices. However, climate change won’t make it any easier for European consumers. In its Agricultural Outlook 2023-2035, the Commission writes that, in a scenario of shifting global weather patterns, declining domestic production of meat and milk in the EU “is likely to lead to higher domestic prices”. 

“We have a major ecological crisis that needs to be politically addressed”, says Lakner. “That will be less likely with a far-right dominated EU-Parliament in Brussels. So voters should be aware of their responsibility”.

The investigation was conducted as part of CORRECTIV.Europe. The project strengthens local journalism and, thus, democracy across the continent through cross-border research. This is realised with a network of over 200 local media professionals throughout Europe. CORRECTIV.Europe is supported by the WPK Innovationsfond and the Adessium Fondation.