USDA to Partner With US Dairy Farmers to Cut Industry Emissions 25% by 2020

This week in Copenhagen, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that USDA will partner with US dairy farmers to reduce dairy industry greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25% by 2020. The agreement was signed with Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which represents 56,000 U.S. dairy producers and will include a ramp up in federal investment in methane digesters under existing farm bill programs that help livestock farmers with financing for the waste-to-energy projects.  In his statement, Vilsack referred to the agreement as ‘historic’ and added:

"The actions we are taking today will not only help mitigate climate change, but also provide immediate local environmental benefits, and assist in reducing America's dependence on foreign fossil fuels…I applaud U.S. dairyman for initiating and supporting these actions…Today we'll have the opportunity to see how efforts to address climate change are already creating wealth in rural communities across America; demonstrate the commitment of America's farmers and ranchers to address the issue of climate change; and have a discussion about the path forward so that agriculture is part of the climate change solution."

Of all domestic livestock animals, beef and dairy cattle are by far the largest emitters of methane, a GHG 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Methane digesters capture methane gas from animal manure and allow it be used for gas or converted into electricity—a.k.a. “biogas-to-energy” (see NRDC’s Renewables website for an interactive map of biogas and other renewable energy potential across the US). Though USDA operates programs to encourage the adoption of methane digesters, in conjunction with EPA and the Department of Energy, fewer than 150 have been funded to date.  Nevertheless, the systems that have been installed through the program are delivering important environmental and energy benefits—approximately 341,400 MWh equivalent of energy generation in 2008 alone according to EPA. 

In his announcement, Vilsack said USDA would work to streamline current requirements for farmers who want to enter the program.  Importantly, though digesters will be one of the largest targeted investments to help reduce GHG pollution from dairy farms, the dairy industry committed to looking for ways to reduce emissions throughout the entire dairy supply chain, from farm to shipping to storage.

Digesters do raise some environmental concerns, particularly their tendency to release nitrogen oxides, an important Clean Air Act non-attainment pollutant in places like California.  Also, there are concerns that federal incentives such as support for digester installation can increase the economic viability of new or expanded concentrated livestock feeding operations, which have been found to be major contributors to water pollution and have serious negative impacts on public health. There may be a variety of strategies to reduce these risks—stay tuned for a follow up post that takes a more in-depth look at these issues.

Nevertheless, DMI should be applauded for publically setting an aggressive GHG emissions reduction target and actively seeking to be part of the solution to global warming.  This type of initiative is particularly important at time when the American Farm Bureau is campaigning to kill any national climate policy. As Vilsack continues to highlight the role the agricultural community—both domestically in the US and worldwide—can and must play in reducing GHG emissions, now is the time for other agricultural industry groups to join DMI in making strong commitments to reducing emissions and supporting a clean energy future.