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5 Myths About Factory Farm Gas 

Food Integrity Campaign | April 29, 2021

Biogas from factory farms is being presented as a “green solution” to the industrial agriculture problem, but behind the smoke and mirrors, factory farm gas thoroughly fails to deliver as an energy solution and actually presents a range of environmental, social, and economic problems. 

If you are new to the conversation, biogas is a way of capturing methane waste and converting it into a burnable fuel with the same chemical makeup as natural gas. Biogas has been focused on animal agriculture since it has a huge climate change footprint[1]http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/. This is because the vast majority of food animals in the US are living in giant confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and feedlots, housing tens of thousands of animals generating billions of pounds of waste in the same small space. Not only is this horrible for the animals, but there are severe consequences for the environment and neighboring communities. 

Want to know the truth about factory farm gas? We have compiled a list of the top five myths surrounding factory farm gas to help you better understand this emerging issue:

 

Myth #1: Factory Farm Gas Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Fossil fuel companies have promoted the image of factory farm gas as eco-friendly and forward-thinking because it captures methane[2]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tue0u0vUjI, but in reality, factory farm gas is still harmful to the atmosphere, and worse, it drives the growth of two incredibly unsustainable industries: increasing mega-CAFOs in animal agriculture, and the expansion of pipelines and natural gas.

Since factory farm gas is chemically identical to natural gas, it emits just as much carbon into the atmosphere[3]https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/methane_digesters.pdf. It also relies on  natural gas infrastructure, like pipelines. To reduce climate-warming emissions, the burning of natural gas must be significantly reduced[4]https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/climate-risks-natural-gas. Thus, burning factory farm gas will not get us very far toward our climate change goals. Factory farm gas also has a limited energy capacity compared to alternative sustainable energies, and mostly serves as a distraction from more environmentally-friendly sources like wind and solar.

Factory farm gas is also dependent on the continued existence, and even expansion of industrial-scale cattle and hog farms, which produce immense quantities of methane and other pollutants. Factory farm gas mitigates some methane emissions, but it does nothing to address the myriad of other polluting emissions, water contamination issues, and odor problems that come with industrial animal agriculture.

 

Myth #2: Factory Farm Gas Reduces Water Pollution

Factory farm gas generates some power from animal waste but does nothing to actually alleviate the harmfulness of liquid manure in animal waste lagoons. Making factory farm gas requires that hog CAFOs store waste as liquid manure, so that the lagoons can be covered and the methane captured. However, animal CAFOs often produce more manure than nearby land can absorb[5]https://www.newsweek.com/2015/12/18/two-numbers-animal-manure-growing-headache-america-402205.html. When over-applied to nearby fields, this liquid manure can become a major source of ground and surface water contamination[6]http://www.fao.org/3/ca0146en/CA0146EN.pdf.

Residents living close to industrial-scale farms are already at risk of having contaminated drinking water. Additionally, industrial livestock farm pollution can lead to the spread of waterborne illnesses and the emergence of toxic algal blooms[7]https://www.nature.org/en-us/newsroom/lake-erie-algal-blooms/. Factory farm gas is infeasible without large lagoons of liquid manure, despite the fact that liquid manure presents a great hazard to the environment.

 

Myth #3: Factory Farm Gas Benefits Rural Communities

Rather than a method to revitalize rural communities, factory farm gas production intensifies air pollution and contributes to negative health effects in the local population[8]https://agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/envsys/files/2016/03/Von-Essen-and-Auvermann-2005.pdf. Factory farm gas production relies on and justifies the existence of industrial livestock farms, which fill the air with volatile organic compounds from manure, pesticides, and fertilizers. To make matters worse, burning factory farm gas releases a far greater amount of harmful gasses, like sulfuric oxides and carbon monoxide, than natural gas combustion does. 

By covering animal waste lagoons, factory farm gas production increases the liquid manure’s ammonia, which causes noxious odors for nearby residents[9]https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf. Members of the neighboring community may suffer from chronic respiratory conditions, like lung disease and asthma[10]https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104911. This reduction in quality-of-life can contribute to a decrease in property values and an acceleration of rural population loss, thus increasing rural poverty[11]https://www.sraproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/thecafoanddepopulationofruralagriculturalareas.pdf.

Often, hog lagoons and other industrial livestock operations are disproportionately located in communities of color, and communities that already face high rates of poverty[12]https://www.hindawi.com/journals/geography/2013/385893/. Thus, factory farm gas will likely serve as a “green energy” justification for the continued harm to vulnerable communities.

 

Myth #4: Factory Farm Gas Benefits Farmers

Since corporations will retain control of the profits, factory farm gas will solidify an agricultural system which has harmed farmers for over a generation. Factory farm gas production is pitched as a way for farmers to earn additional income off of existing waste lagoons. Instead, factory farm gas is likely to increase the debt load for farmers, and further drive an increase in farm size and a further consolidation in the industry. 

The last few decades have witnessed a tremendous concentration of power in a small number of meat-processing companies, often to the detriment of small farms. Most chickens and hogs are raised under a contract system, where farmers do not actually own the livestock on their farm[13]https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/05/07/469385/fair-deal-farmers/. Contract farmers earn little and are often forced into an endless debt cycle by taking out loans on expensive agricultural equipment.

This contract system is detrimental to transparency and farmer dignity. When farmers speak up about unsanitary conditions or unhealthy livestock, companies are quick to retaliate.

Due to the concentration of livestock and manure, farmers and farm workers are exposed to harmful airborne pollutants, and often suffer from respiratory conditions[14]https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/cafos-uncovered-full-report.pdf. These unsanitary conditions put consumers at risk by increasing the likelihood of a salmonella or E. coli outbreak.

 

Myth #5: Factory Farm Gas is Profitable

Although presented as a profitable energy source, in reality, factory farm gas operations are more expensive to construct and maintain, less efficient than alternatives, and completely dependent on taxpayer investment, which is subject to policy change. Factory farm gas relies on government subsidies[15]https://www.epa.gov/renewable-fuel-standard-program/overview-renewable-fuel-standard and carbon trading schemes to keep it afloat. On its own, it is not economically viable. Unlike wind and solar power projects, factory farm gas operations will not generate enough income to pay for new equipment at the end of their estimated 10-year useful life – and will continually rely on subsidies and grants to stay in operation. This leaves factory farm gas operations vulnerable to the changing policy landscape, especially as policies adjust around climate change goals[16]http://calag.ucanr.edu/archive/?article=ca.2018a0037&utm..  

Dollar for dollar, solar and wind power projects generate more power and last significantly longer than factory farm gas projects do[17]https://escholarship.org/content/qt32g861sz/qt32g861sz.pdf?t=pktc27. Investing in factory farm gas serves only to divert public money from truly sustainable energy sources. Government grants and taxpayer support present an artificial, and potentially temporary, profit incentive for farmers to maintain the existing unsustainable system of animal waste lagoons in order to produce factory farm gas.

 

References

References
1 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/
2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tue0u0vUjI
3 https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/methane_digesters.pdf
4 https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/climate-risks-natural-gas
5 https://www.newsweek.com/2015/12/18/two-numbers-animal-manure-growing-headache-america-402205.html
6 http://www.fao.org/3/ca0146en/CA0146EN.pdf
7 https://www.nature.org/en-us/newsroom/lake-erie-algal-blooms/
8 https://agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/envsys/files/2016/03/Von-Essen-and-Auvermann-2005.pdf
9 https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf
10 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104911
11 https://www.sraproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/thecafoanddepopulationofruralagriculturalareas.pdf
12 https://www.hindawi.com/journals/geography/2013/385893/
13 https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/05/07/469385/fair-deal-farmers/
14 https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/cafos-uncovered-full-report.pdf
15 https://www.epa.gov/renewable-fuel-standard-program/overview-renewable-fuel-standard
16 http://calag.ucanr.edu/archive/?article=ca.2018a0037&utm.
17 https://escholarship.org/content/qt32g861sz/qt32g861sz.pdf?t=pktc27

One Comment

  1. Tyler Lobdell says:

    Really glad you all are tackling this important issue, and helping break through the fog of industry greenwashing. Thank you!Report

  2. Robert Bullard says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    Leverage buy-out was a concept developed after WWII when the union movement in the US was still strong and becoming stronger as wealth was created through member contributions. The idea was for unionized workers to slowly buy out, own and operate the businesses for which they worked. We know how all this went down over the years with the decline of unions and the rise of private equity outfits who simply extended the buying power of investors to take over the debt of whatever company they believed could be salvaged or profitably broken up by selling assets. But the segue is the opportunity for non-Big Ag farmers to compete with Big-Ag by forming a new generation of cooperatives that are structured so that Big Ag can not break their backs as has happened in the past with ag coops. A good place to start is with mavens and major players of the ESGI world, for they goal is to make the guys in Big Ag more like family farmer, to put it simply. It is an easy step for the main ESGI financial backers to partner with and devise ag coops that can survive and thrive in the context of Big Ag. For example, an ag coop member must live and die by the coop, meaning whenever Big Ag tries to pull any kind of controlling or compromising maneuver to take down a coop member the coop is structured to be, among other protective features, the buyer of first refusal as the last measure of protection of the stressed member. The rest of the coop members become the owners of the stressed farm as a last resort of many measures available to the coop members to beat back Big Ag.Report

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