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USDA & EPA Working to Reduce Farm Emissions, But are Methane Digesters Full of Hot Air?

3p Contributor | Tuesday May 11th, 2010 | 4 Comments

By Lesley Lammers for the Green Chamber of Commerce

Just this past week EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack made an announcement that the two agencies will work together to support renewable energy production on livestock farms.  This agreement will increase the scope of work for AgSTAR, an interagency program already established to help minimize the greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock by encouraging the use of methane (biogas) digesters.  Methane is a powerful pollutant (the EPA calculates it is 20 times more concentrated a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) that can be recovered, reused and transformed into renewable energy when captured by digesters.

This cooperative effort will supply $3.9 million to farms within the coming five years to facilitate their ability to salvage and reuse biogas for electricity, hot water and heat.  The agencies will offer technical assistance on the building and continual assessment of biogas recovery systems to livestock producers who have been deemed appropriate candidates for implementing such systems.  The funds will also allow more studies to be performed on the viability of constructing and operating digesters on livestock farms.

AgSTAR has already helped to establish approximately 150 livestock farm digesters and predicts that this new project could potentially lend a hand to another 8,000 farms, whose sites have been assessed as feasible for digester installation.  Should all 8,000 farms install digesters, the agencies have deduced that the equivalent of 6.5 million annual car emissions would be removed from the atmosphere and roughly 1,500 megawatts of energy could be produced.

Without biogas recovery systems, factory farms have to figure out what to do with large amounts of manure waste.  If the correct volume is allocated, the nutrients from manure act as a great compost to fertilize the soil for sustainable, future use.  On most industrial-size farms, manure waste is stored in open air lagoons until sprayed on the fields as fertilizer.  Not only can the manure release methane into the air, but if not maintained properly, the waste can leak out of the lagoons and cause additional environmental damage.  If when sprayed, too much manure is distributed on the soil, a high density of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen can cause soil runoff.  This is due to the fact that soil only has the capacity to retain a certain amount of these nutrients.  Runoff then pollutes the groundwater and local waterways with undesirable bacteria and pathogens created by the high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.  In turn, improper management of livestock manure can make water non-potable, unusable for recreation, and destructive to aquatic wildlife and surrounding habitat.

So while digesters appear to be needed in order to mitigate the aforementioned waste management issues, sustainable farming advocates suggest that these digesters are being promoted as a way to make factory farms or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) more feasible and widespread.  John Kinsman of Family Farm Defenders made this argument in a recent All Business article when he wrote, “The real tragedy is that manure digesters actually make global warming worse while ‘solving’ a manure problem that would not even exist if cows were allowed to graze on pasture rather than being confined indoors.”  Kinsman and other skeptics are left wondering if this project, which at first glance appears to be a positive step forward for the environment, in reality might just be a band aid on a larger problem of the current industrial agriculture infrastructure.   Should the government be spending $3.9 million of Americans’ tax dollars subsidizing the building of these digesters on factory farms or should they be funding research to find alternative sustainable agricultural practices?  As industrial agribusiness is well established, perhaps the answer is both?  I’d be curious to hear readers’ thoughts on this.

Speaking of research, turns out that the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) just announced plans to do the first ever On-Farm Energy Production Survey on renewable energy efforts already underway on approximately 20,000 farms across the nation.  The survey will only be looking at power from solar, wind and anaerobic digesters.  Results will be available by February 2011 and ideally this information will be used to help to propel these renewable energy systems forward on more farms in the U.S.

Related 3p Posts:

Factory Farm Debate Gets Smelly in Missouri
Got Manure? You’ve Got Renewable Energy
Cash Cows: Vermont Dairy Farm Converts Cattle Manure into Electricity
The Fight Against Factory Farms Ramps Up

Lesley Lammers is a freelance environmental writer and regular contributor to the Green Chamber of Commerce. The Green Chamber of Commerce represents the NEW voice of commerce, one that can envision the future – a future where businesses work to protect our planet.


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Categorized: Agriculture & Food|

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  • John J

    Interesting article. However, it sounds like Ms. Lammers and Mr. Kinsman haven't spent much time on dairy farms. The article makes it seem as if CAFOs and family farms are mutually exclusive. In fact, most dairy farms in the US are family-owned and also confinement-style operations (I do not know enough to say the same for swine or poultry). While I agree that pasture-based dairying is in many ways more sustainable, confinement agriculture is not going away, and efforts to make what we have more sustainable (such as those by the EPA and USDA) should be praised. Taking the “all or nothing” stance against American farmers will only turn a lot more people away from the environmental movement, when we really can't afford to lose anyone. Including farmers in our efforts to reduce agriculture's impact on the environment will have a much greater effect, and lead to change faster than pitting “us” against “them”.

  • Bakary Jatta

    Consider that combining biochar with manure prevents the excessive pollution of soil, air and water while enhancing biomass production. There are more ways than one to attain sustainability in resource use.

    Bakary Jatta

  • formeragteacher

    I doubt much, if any of the $3.9 Million goes directly to farms. That is just about enough to run an EPA pulicity campaign and up grade the FARMware program the is getting little use.

    I suspect this was a USDA-EPA newsbyte to make everyone think the agencies were going to do big things. Watcg for all of the money to be spent on agency activities.

  • formeragteacher

    I doubt much, if any of the $3.9 Million goes directly to farms. That is just about enough to run an EPA pulicity campaign and up grade the FARMware program the is getting little use.

    I suspect this was a USDA-EPA newsbyte to make everyone think the agencies were going to do big things. Watcg for all of the money to be spent on agency activities.

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