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 footprinthttp://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:
Fossil fuel companies have promoted the image of factory farm gas as eco-friendly and forward-thinking because it captures methanehttps://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 atmospherehttps://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 reducedhttps://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.
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 absorbhttps://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 contaminationhttp://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 bloomshttps://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.
Rather than a method to revitalize rural communities, factory farm gas production intensifies air pollution and contributes to negative health effects in the local populationhttps://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 residentshttps://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 asthmahttps://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 povertyhttps://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 povertyhttps://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.
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 farmhttps://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 conditionshttps://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.
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 subsidieshttps://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 goalshttp://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 dohttps://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.