Stop fixating on the poop

It’s good to hear more talk about the fact that we can’t solve problems caused by scale by trying to build solutions at the same scale.

Take anaerobic digesters, part of the “waste-to-energy” trend currently favored in waste management of many kinds. In agriculture, there’s lots of concern about methane emissions from CAFOs, and lots of effort to convert manure lagoons into supposedly “green” biogas-generating plants that turn methane into electricity or other forms of fuel. But as Lena Beck reports in Modern Farmer, there’s a growing amount of noise about the reasons that this is actually nonsensical, such as:

  • Most of the methane that animal agriculture produces happens during digestion (those famous cow belches), not from the resulting manure.
  • Building methane digesters does nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuel inputs to grow both the animals that do the pooping and the food those animals ate. The emissions have already happened, but now we can pretend they didn’t because we’ve kicked the problem down the line and made a supposedly “green” biogas. Yay us!
  • It also does nothing to address – and can actually contribute to – the continued consolidation in the food and farming economies, which benefits only the biggest of the big.
  • And because this is all happening within a capitalist economy, creating a new market for manure biogas does what creating markets tends to do: it incentivizes future production, including by expanding herd sizes (see previous bullet point).  
  • Also, those digesters leak. 🙁

I don’t think there’s one single “right” scale for the modern food system. But it sure seems like all roads lead to scaling it down, if we’re serious about its many problems.

4 weeks ago

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