Dairy and livestock companies have been closely scrutinized by environmental and governmental agencies not only for humane treatment of animals, but also to measure the carbon footprint of making something simple, like a gallon of milk. In the past, emissions from dairy accounted for 7 percent of the total US emissions, recent changes and an updated report shows reduced numbers.
The Innovation Center for US Dairy (ICUSD) have made a goal to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and have identified 12 projects that will reduce emissions by 12 percent and create $238 million in revenue:
Many farms have already begun looking into ways to convert methane into a viable alternative energy source, while others have looked into manure. In fact, China has looked into developing the largest cow manure-fed biogas plant in the world. Huishan Farms has 250,000 cows (compared to 15,000 for the largest US dairy farm) and with help from General Electrics (GE) plan to produce 38,00 megawatt-hours of power annually. Of the thousands of dairy farms in the US, however, only 24 have digesters mainly due to a lack of economic incentive. For many farmers, the investment in these machines may take up to 10 years to recoup losses, and without better incentives (carbon offsets are not a major driver behind projects) like higher rates for renewable electricity as well as tax credits [Source: New York Times]. Other ways to cut back on emissions is for dairy farmers to go organic. According to the “Shades of Green (PDF)” report by the Organic Center, changing to organic would lead to:
A recent greehouse gas emissions study by the IUSCD reports that dairy farmers have improved efficiency and general farm practices. The 2010 report states that dairy farms and associated products accounts for only 2 percent of the US emissions. This number encompasses the entire process of creating a gallon of milk from the crops grown for cow feed to packaging and delivery. According to the report, carbon footprint for the dairy industry have 63 percent since 1944 mainly due to improved production efficiency and nutrition management [Source: USDA] Introducing more sustainable practices like changing livestock feed to perennial crops rather than annual and adding solar panels or wind turbines will help to further reduce emissions, though focus remains on ways to capture and use the methane gas expelled from the cows.
The study is encouraging, however there are still many problems. For example, how can dairy farmers prevent cows from emitting so much methane? Is it simply a diet change or will it lead to more genetic modificiation? Other issues to consider besides environmental impact is the humane treatment of these animals. For the aforementioned projects to make an impact, there needs to be more transparency and accountability, not only for the dairy farmers, but for the organizations overseeing these projects.
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