Taxpayers subsidizing a load of bull

The USDA is encouraging the adoption of technology to recycle factory farm manure. The problem: It fails to solve the pollution its supposed to be addressing and taxpayers are being stuck with the very large bill.


October 6, 2003

Feedstuffs reports in its "Hog Industry Insider" section that Maschhoff Inc., one of the 15 largest hog producers in the country, is about to put online two 3,600 head wean-to-finish barns in Mulkeytwon, Illinois.

The company owns all of 40 acres, although they have easements for manure application on another 1,200 acres. The company received "more than $100,000 in federal EQIP grant funds to help with the $211,00 cost to implement the underground manure conveyance system."

New York, NY, October 6, 2003: At the recent Anaerobic Digester Technology Applications in Animal Agriculture Summit sponsored by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in North Carolina, speakers admitted that, unless backed by government “incentives,” anaerobic methane digesters – which use decomposing manure to produce energy by capturing methane gas – are not an economical way to manage waste and produce energy. Incentives would come from the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds for environmental conservation because digesters are considered an environmentally friendly waste management solution. But “in actual fact they don’t solve the pollution problems posed by massive amounts of animal waste flowing from large factory farms,” says Dr. William J. Weida, noted rural economist and director of the GRACE Factory Farm Project.

“It's a red herring,” asserts Dr. Weida. “Subsidizing anaerobic digesters diverts EQIP funds to support a technology that will only encourage factory farms to continue producing unsustainable amounts of manure and pollution. What they should do is eliminate environmental damage from excessive animal waste, and the only viable way to do that is to reduce the size of factory farms and utilize EQIP funds for true environmental restoration.”

U.S. agriculture produces more than 350 million tons of manure every year. Much of it comes from outsized factory farms, which – as a recent USDA study found – have become so large that they cannot efficiently dispose of the enormous amounts of waste they create. Current practices of disposing manure in giant open-air “lagoons,” spraying liquefied manure over surrounding fields, or disposing of solid waste in landfills after evaporation in the lagoons create health hazards and odor nuisances. Air pollution from animal waste has been reported to cause respiratory problems, skin infections, nausea, depression, and other serious illnesses in people living near factory farms. Such pollution also damages surrounding properties and lowers property values in the vicinity.

As a solution, in an attempt to mitigate the environmental impacts caused by animal waste, the USDA is encouraging subsidies for anaerobic methane digesters. According to their proposition, funding would come from EQIP, the single largest program for general environment conservation on working lands with $9 billion to invest over ten years. However, given that no study shows that digesters solve the environmental problems posed by industrial quantities of manure, the use of EQIP funds to subsidize anaerobic digesters constitutes a violation of the very intent of EQIP (originally billed as a conservation program to repair environmental damage).

“Methane digesters to not eliminate the main sources of odor and air pollution, which are barns and manure pits. They do nothing to reduce the amount of manure that must be dealt with,” continues Dr. Weida. “Further, unless high-cost ammonia strippers are employed, digesters emit ammonia at rates that exceed industrial pollution standards, thereby increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by a significant degree, as a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences confirms. They're really not the panacea they've been made out to be. Digesters have a high initial cost, a long payback period, a very high failure rate, and a relatively short lifespan.” This is why, even though digester technology is decades old, fewer than 300 digesters are in operation today in the U.S., and virtually all of them are subsidized by the government. “Digesters are obviously not the definitive solution to the environmental impacts of excessive manure; they are a ‘make-believe solution’ that comes at a high cost for taxpayers and at the expense of other true environmental investments.”

The National Academy of Sciences’ report, “Air Emissions from Animal Feeding Operations: Current Knowledge, Future Needs,” is available online at: