The Only Upside to Factory Farming

Chalk one up for the forces of agribusiness: Cargill's massive new waste-to-energy plant will create enough energy for 1,100 homes using the manure from 6,000 cows.

A new anaerobic digester on Cargill's Bettancourt Dairy B6 Farm in Jerome, Idaho, is the company's second such plant in that state, and will generate an estimated 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per month.

From the company's announcement:

Along with generating enough renewable electricity to power approximately 1,100 U.S. homes per month, the project will also generate carbon credits from reduced methane emissions in the atmosphere. Cargill is currently in the process of selling the first 28,000 tons of emission offsets generated by the initial Bettencourt Dairy digester. At peak capacity that digester is expected to produce 1.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, enough to power approximately 1,400 U.S. homes.

Aside from the benefits of removing that much methane from the atmosphere, and providing energy to local residents, but beyond that, it's hard to see how this is a green announcement, instead of a somewhat-less-brown project.

Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations, aka CAFOs, aka Factory Farms, are the source of overwhelming pollution for the areas they're situated in -- imagine just how much waste 6,000 cows creates in a day, much less a month or a year or a decade. And Cargill has another CAFO nearby with 10,000 cows, which also has an anaerobic digester.

Concentrating all these animals, and the food and water to keep them alive, has significant upstream effects as well, including the need for large-scale farms to grow the corn or hay to feed the cows. Crop farming on that scale is the cause of aquatic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere -- New Jersey-sized stretches of ocean too rich in nutrients for anything but algae to survive.

Dead zones, in addition to just being bad news for the health of the world's oceans and ecosystems (see this article from National Geographic on the world's largest dead zone), are also decimating communities that depend on local fisheries for work and for sustenance.

But hey -- at least Cargill will get its carbon credits for capturing all that methane.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user pamzpix.