Reducing GHG emissions is everyone’s business. But, is no silver bullet. We will only achieve success with a thousand cuts. And, more often than not, there will be tradeoffs. So, rather than maximizing any single solution, we need to find several optimal ones and implement them simultaneously. They could include feed production, digestion, energy intensive inputs, direct energy use, refrigeration, transport, etc.
However, when it comes to reducing dairy production’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, there’s an opportunity right under our noses: better manure management. Manure is responsible for around 10 percent of the global industry’s GHG emissions, but if managed properly, can be a valuable source of nutrients and bioenergy.
Fair Oaks Farm in the U.S., for example, converts manure from dairy cows and organic waste into several products, including all the electricity and refrigeration required to run the farm as well as compressed natural gas to fuel its long-haul trucks, removing 2 million gallons of diesel from the roads each year. Management also captures N, P and K which can be applied back to the fields, as needed, or sold. Fair Oaks has reduced emissions from 13 pounds per pound of milk to 9. Its goal is to be GHG neutral.
Biogas digesters such as those used at Fair Oaks are an example of improved manure management that can yield significant benefits for farmers, communities and the environment. However, to be fully scaled in developed countries, biogas digester technologies require significant investments, knowledge, and access to grids as well as appropriate incentives and policies that can make them work as part of integrated nutrient management systems at farms.
EARTH University has adapted an affordable Taiwanese-designed biogas digester for small, off-grid farmers in Costa Rica. With a single cow, four pigs, or twenty chickens, this system can provide enough methane for a family of four to cook and to provide one hour of light each evening. It also produces effluents that are good for household aquaculture and garden production.
In developing countries, different policies are needed to encourage the proliferation of biogas digesters. Dairy farmers and other livestock producers need support in their efforts to reduce GHG emissions from manure as well as move away from burning firewood. A monetary value for carbon would make it possible not only for producers to sell their carbon emissions, but if done thoughtfully a system could be developed that would allow forward contracts for reduced carbon emissions. This could become a transformational financing mechanism for livestock producers that live off the grid in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
The world’s dairy industry should act now to reduce GHG emissions if it wants to maintain its license to operate. There are many ways to do this, and biogas digesters are certainly one of them. Governments, businesses, development agencies, banks and financial institutions, NGOs, farmers, and others should work together to advance the development and adoption of technologies and solutions for affordable, renewable, and environmentally sustainable dairy systems that fit best in the local landscapes. The risks of inaction are significant, but more importantly, the opportunities to reduce carbon emissions while providing clean energy to farms and communities around the world are too great to ignore.
He has worked on a family farm and in the US Department of Agriculture. He has co-convened multi-stakeholder roundtables of producers, investors, buyers, researchers and NGOs to identify and reduce the impacts of salmon, soy, sugarcane, cotton, and beef. Most recently he has helped create corporate commitments around deforestation and more recently brought attention to global issues such as illegality, degraded land, and long-term contracts as a way to use the market to change it.