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Manure Digesters – Just Another False Solution That Makes Climate Injustice Worse

By John E. Peck – FFD executive director

Published by Common Dreams, April 21st, 2024

There has been much media hype about manure digesters and how they will “solve” climate change by capturing and burning methane from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs – aka factory farms). Billions in taxpayer handouts and other incentives through pollution offset trading markets are encouraging factory farms to expand and profit from their waste stream. Some economists now speculate that factory farms are earning more from making methane than milk! A recent FOE and SRAP report ( goes even further suggesting that if the U.S. really wanted to reduce it’s agricultural contribution towards greenhouse gases, it would make more sense for regulators to phase-out/split-up CAFOs and shift taxpayer support towards smaller grass-based livestock operations instead.

Sadly, the misguided notion of manure digesters as a “solution” to the climate crisis is nothing new. Back in 2009 at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen I almost fell off my chair when then USDA Sec. Vilsack announced that manure digesters on factory farms were going to be a key part of Obama’s climate change agenda. He later admitted that less than 10% of dairy farms (ie CAFOs) would be large enough to qualify for these USDA digester grants – another example of how federal policies support industrial agribusiness to the detriment of smaller farmers.

Waunakee, WI taxpayer subsidized “Community” Manure Digester that only serves three CAFOs nearby – prior to its massive explosion in 2012

This manure digester building binge has ramped up even more under Biden – with Vilsack once again back at the helm of the USDA. The latest IATP report ( critiquing the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) reveals just how much of this popular USDA effort has been hijacked by a small elite number of CAFOs, to the detriment of the majority of farmers who have their EQIP applications declined. Encouraging livestock grazing is NOT front and center among “climate smart” practices promoted under EQIP and NRCS – that star role is held by waste lagoons and manure digesters. A typical CAFO digester for 2000 dairy cows costs over $2 million with EQIP covering up to $400,000. But there are many other funds available, such as through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) which bankrolled $78 million for digesters in the last decade. The recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) added another $250 million to EQIP, along with another $2 billion for REAP, including a brand new 30% tax credit for all new digesters built.

The current trough of taxpayer funding for the manure methane industrial complex is long and deep, but there is even more potential revenue to be milked. In Wisconsin alone there are now fifteen manure digesters getting money for their methane offsetting of 1.3 million carbon credits available through the California Cap and Trade System. How does this work? Build a methane digester in WI, claim that by burning off this really bad methane it is equal to reducing the impact of so many tons of carbon dioxide emitted in CA, and then get a bonus check for that hard offset work! The value of one carbon credit on the CA market as of April 2023 was $28.66.

The problem with this taxpayer mandated and subsidized “cap and trade” system is that it does not necessarily reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions – it just moves pollution around (and the atmosphere doesn’t care about your zipcode…). Worse yet, if your offset claims prove to be bogus and corrupt, the climate crisis ends up much worse. This was exactly the case when Midwest activists alerted CA officials that some of the WI CAFOs claiming methane offset credits were really engaged in wire fraud since their digesters were either broken or not effectively functioning to capture methane as claimed. More details can be found in the SRAP expose of this 21st century Ponzi style scheme: ( Along with many allies, FFD has been diligently opposing such corporatized pollution trading mechanisms through the Alliance Against Farm Bill Offsets, whether they involve offsets for carbon sequestration pipelines, manure digesters, or “no-till” GMO monocultures.

My gut reaction fifteen years ago to Vilsack’s manure digester panacea to global climate change remains true today – why pay to fix a problem that doesn’t even need to exist? Countless studies have shown that the most cost effective, eco-friendly, and often quite profitable form of animal husbandry – including dairying – is managed rotational grazing. If animals are just allowed to enjoy pasture outside (as they prefer and are meant to do by mother nature) and then also allowed to deposit their manure in a healthy perennial ecosystem, one does not end up with a methane crisis. It is only when one decides to confine thousands of animals in a warehouse, offer them nothing but TMR to consume (with dubious components like feather meal and ethanol leftovers), liquify millions of gallons of their manure, and then store it in massive anaerobic lagoons, that one creates a pollutant 80+ times worse than carbon dioxide.

Sure, one can always capture and burn the methane that doesn’t leak from a CAFO digester to make electricity or run a vehicle (which means more greenhouse gas pollution), but you still have the leftover sludge (aka digestate) to deal with. This is loaded with nitrates, phosphorous, and – depending upon what other waste gets dumped into the digester – PFAS, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, heavy metals – which will then seep into the ground and became part of runoff, contributing to tainted wells, beach closures, toxic fish, the list goes on and on. Besides methane, there are other toxic CAFO gases – such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and nitrous oxide – that cause chronic headaches for neighboring residents and hurt anyone else downwind.

And let’s not forget the ever present danger of methane explosions and lagoon ruptures. When a massive lagoon leaked on a hog factory farm in Wayne County NC in May 2022, spilling into the nearby Nahunta Swamp, it was revealed that hundreds of rotting pigs, along with deli meat and discarded hotdogs, were part of the digester feedstock to make the methane being sold to Duke Energy. Closer to home, just ask anyone who lives near Waunakee, WI, what it is like to have a poorly designed and managed digester both explode and also leak 400,000+ gallons of fresh manure into Lake Mendota about a decade ago. This single disaster set back Yahara Watershed clean up efforts for years. It would have been so much cheaper, simpler, and less disastrous for WI state and Dane county taxpayers to have promoted composting instead (which some better CAFOs actually do, without lagoons).

Waunakee WI manure digester in 2013 leaking 300,00 gallons of CAFO manure into Lake Mendota, part of the Yahara Watershed, just north of Madison

In Nov. 2022 Kari Lydersen wrote a disturbing investigation, chronicling the many risks to farm workers from factory farms and their manure digesters ( She tells one story of Bob Baenziger, Jr., retired Army veteran and former offshore oil rig diver, who died in 2021 as a hired contractor trying to fix a broken cable in an IA manure digester. Drowning in such a squalid pool is something straight out of Dante’s Inferno. The same year Samuel Antonio Padilla Castro, a Honduran immigrant, was working a twelve hour shift at the Fair Oaks Farm in IN when his clothing was caught in manure handling equipment, strangling him to death. His death left behind a widow, three children, and a token $10,500 OSHA fine. Austin Frerick’s profile of the McCloskey Family which owns Fair Oaks Farm in his new book, Barons, reveals more of the underbelly of this “Dairy Disneyland” including their role as digester cheerleaders. Another Fair Oaks tourist and digester advocate he mentions is Tom Vilsack.

Our current “get big or get out” farm policy does not have much time or interest in agroecological approaches for healthier food that also ensure food sovereignty. Instead, corporate agribusiness is allowed to manipulate commodity markets – driving out what little competition exists from smaller farmers and local processors. The political allies of the food giants then ensure that taxpayers help underwrite the largest industrialized operations left standing since they are the easiest to vertically integrate into the dominant oligopoly structure. Is it any surprise to see agribusiness lobbyists and their academic apologists now touting manure digesters as “climate smart” just in time for Earth Day and pushing for pollution trading offset schemes within the 2024 Farm Bill?

Thankfully, there are better responses to the climate crisis that also treat rural people and our land, air, and water with respect. Existing federal initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program could be expanded to better direct payments to farmers who are already doing so much responsible land/climate stewardship – without carbon offset peddlers skimming 25% off the top. The EQIP and REAP programs need to be overhauled to severely limit or even eliminate CAFO lagoon/digester grants and earmark more towards smaller grass-based diversified operations instead. This is the gist behind the EQIP Reform Act, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Mike Lee (R-UT) last year as part of the Farm Bill debate.

More generally, factory farms must be treated as a pollution point source, subject to all the monitoring, regulation, and liability required for any other industrial operation. Why should CAFOs evade the common sense oversight that other businesses respect? Defending local control also remains critical. Last year grassroots activists in St. Croix County were able to push back and shut down a massive digester proposal near New Richmond, WI, being aggressively promoted by Nature Energy, a Shell Oil subsidiary. Thousands of folks recently responded to a statewide action alert successfully demanding that WI Gov. Tony Evers veto CAFO industry-crafted preemption legislation that would have hamstrung the right to pass ordinances that would restrict their manure digesters and other rural mal-development projects. Democratic direct action can get the goods!

NASA space probes have revealed that there is a massive ocean of liquid methane on Titan, one of the moons circling Saturn. There is also not any life that we know of on Titan… Intentional factory farm production and subsequent “climate smart” combustion of methane is not only oxymoronic, but will undermine the future prospect of life here on Earth. Farmers can feed the world and the cool the planet – without the false promise of manure digesters.

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Today’s Trade Agreements Put Profits Before People

These treaties harm both farmers and consumers by squeezing food systems for maximum profit.

by Jim Goodman, board member, Family Farm Defenders, retired organic beef/dairy farmer from Wonewoc, WI

Published by the Progressive, Feb. 21, 2024

Trade agreements are part of a global economy. The United States is party to fourteen international free trade agreements involving twenty countries. Note that they are “free” trade agreements, (which, in theory, are supposed to expand marketing opportunities for producers) not “fair” trade agreements. If they were “fair” trade agreements, producers would be paid a fair price no matter where they live or what they produced. In fact, these agreements do little to increase prices to small scale farmers, or wages for workers, because they do not directly enter the global market. Rather, their work, their production is sold into a consolidated market where the profit is sucked up by the multinational corporations – all at the expense of the people. 

It is no secret that those agreements, negotiated between governments, are heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists to ensure that the regulation of pretty much everything—such as labor, food safety, the environment—will favor corporate profit above all else. And that, in sum, is the problem with free trade: a greater concern for making money than for the wellbeing of people, on both sides of the deal.

Because trade agreements cater to corporations, worker incomes are negatively impacted in both developed and developing nations. That said, the burden of these free trade agreements come to bear most heavily on the world’s poorest inhabitants. Profit comes by keeping wages low, centering pollution and environmental damage in the poorest countries, and by controlling the global food supply.

As noted by economist Joseph Stiglitz, “We could have ensured that globalization benefited all, but corporate greed was just too great.” Pitting workers around the world against each other will, of course, drive wages down—one of the results sought by multinational corporations.

Control of the food supply was another goal, paying farmers as little as possible, managing their market access through consolidation, and selling through highly consolidated consumer markets to ensure maximum profit. Financial speculation in agricultural commodities and land, volatile weather, and people’s inability to determine where and how their food would be grown only exacerbated the problems caused by unfair trade.

“Hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy,” writes Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute.

Did we learn anything from the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008? Apparently not the lessons we should have. When commodity food prices on international markets in some cases doubled, causing food riots and starvation, farmers saw little price increase even as multinational corporations increased their profit margins. Corporate grain and meat processors are more consolidated and still make vast profits at the expense of farmers and consumer choice. Governments still use food as a weapon whether aimed very specifically, as in Gaza, or more broadly in wars and conflicts.

Perhaps rather than allowing those who control global markets to decide who will eat, what they will eat, where their food will be grown, and who will grow it, a different more democratic approach is needed. Food Sovereignty is a concept that allows people to make decisions about their food locally, for their benefit. Under this system, farmers and farm workers are valued for what they grow and the knowledge they pass on, and nature and the environment are respected as the source of life. In defining the concept of Food Sovereignty, economist Raj Patel noted that “People could eat well only if their governments were free to adopt policies that supported domestic production and consumption.”

Let’s end this foolishness of “feeding the world” a Western diet just because it’s profitable. Give peasant farmers, Indigenous farmers, and farmers of color the ability to farm their own land and feed their own communities. Loss of local control through “land grabs” worldwide holds small farmers and their communities captive in the global food economy.

Similarly, let local fisher folk have access to fishing grounds and the fair market access that is increasingly being denied through “ocean grabbing.” Whether in the Americas or off the Horn of Africa, local fisher folk are denied the right to make a living and feed their communities.

Resistance to corporate domination of food, unfair trade agreements, and efforts to protect food producers and consumers is gaining traction even in the partisan, grid-locked halls of Congress. The ARCTIC Act, introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, supports Alaska’s farmers, fishers, and local food. And a rare bipartisan effort, mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) sponsored by U.S. Senators John Thune, Republican of South Dakota; Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana; Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota; and Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey gives farmers and ranchers the right to use a United States “country of origin” label. Acts like these can begin to give people a connection to their food and those that produce it. People want and need to be part of a community that supports everyone.

Undoubtedly, corporate lobbyists are busily mounting their opposition to both acts because they protect local farmers, ranchers, fishers, and food systems—rather than corporate profit. Officially, Canada and Mexico previously filed disputes against U.S. Country of Origin labels on meat, and no doubt will again. Conversely, U.S. trade negotiators have filed a dispute against Canada for protecting their dairy farmers against U.S. dairy imports, as well as a dispute against Mexico for protecting Mexican farmers and consumers against U.S. imports of genetically modified (GM) corn.

Maybe the United States should stop forcing unwanted dairy into Canada and GM corn into both countries. Then Mexico might let U.S. farmers and ranchers label their meat so consumers could choose U.S.-grown meat. Seems like a win for food producers and consumers in all three countries. 

And all of these measures are permissible within the text of the U.S.- Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

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Food is Not a Weapon – Family Farm Defenders Solidarity Statement on Gaza Feb. 14th, 2024

The human right to food is sacred and protected under international law. Family Farm Defenders maintains the principles of food sovereignty, including the right to food, as a guide to our response to ongoing and escalating violence, destruction, and loss of life in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.

Therefore, in good conscience, we must speak up now, joining the millions of voices from around the world who are calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the suffering and starvation that is being inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza.

Family Farm Defenders is proud to be part of a global movement advocating for food justice and human rights. John Kinsman, one of our founders, was a tireless champion of civil rights, social justice, and food sovereignty both in the US and around the world. As he once stated, “the seven principles of food sovereignty are the finest recipe for global food, social and environmental justice that exist today.”

Due to decades of occupation and restrictions imposed by Israel, the ability of Palestinian farmers, fishers, and pastoralists to feed their people, has been greatly diminished.

Since the horrific attacks on Israeli communities on October 7, 2023, Israel’s military response, with US support, has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Medical supplies, food, clean water, and energy are all in very short supply. The ongoing bombardments and attacks have shattered the lives of its 2.3 million residents and killed over 28,000.

Food production and distribution has been severely affected. In addition to United Nations agencies, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a winner of the USFSA Food Sovereignty Prize in 2014 and member of La Via Campesina, has created a “Stop Gaza Starvation” campaign. Members have put their own lives at risk to provide food and other supplies.

Even so, the situation is increasingly dire, marked by widespread hunger, relentless blockades, and continuous bombardment.

In January, the International Court of Justice ruled Israel must take all possible measures to prevent acts of genocide. La Via Campesina stated that “this ICJ decision is an initial step in holding the occupation accountable for its heinous crimes and unprecedented use of starvation as a weapon in its war against civilians in Gaza.”

For the people of Gaza, time is running out.

In fact, now, in early February 2024, instead of responding to the ICJ ruling to prevent genocide, Israel is ramping up its attacks and has begun to implement plans for a ground invasion of the last “safe zone” – Rafah – which has become a massive refugee camp. Experts are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza with millions of people facing starvation, the cruelty of which is unimaginable.

Family Farm Defenders recognizes our responsibility to speak for peace and justice, for food sovereignty, and for human rights. We call on the United States government to demand an immediate ceasefire, the safe release of all hostages and political prisoners, and the stoppage of its own military support to any country or entity violating international law. Our government must end its imperialist ambitions and join the global community, accepting its humanitarian duty, and work toward a just and lasting peace in all regions of the world. Ceasefire, now!

For those interested in supporting food assistance to folks in Gaza, we suggest donating to: 

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Farmers Need Better Policy, Not To Export More

Increasing exports will not keep farmers in business. Legislators can help farmers by inserting policies that would help them into the Farm Bill.

By: Anthony Pahnke, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and and Associate Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University

Originally published by the Progressive, Jan. 19, 2024

“We had to. We feed the world.”

This is what my grandfather told me when describing why we made changes to our farm over the years, whether it was replacing horses with tractors, learning how to apply the latest pesticide technology to reduce weeds or buying more cows for our herd.

The mantra instilled into us by elites was to produce, produce, produce.

Farmers like us heeded the call as we increasingly sent our products to other countries. In 1990, just over $45 billion dollars in sales came from overseas, which soared to more than $196 billion in 2022— a record year.

But here’s the rub—increasing exports will not keep farmers in business.

Just look at the dairy sector. 

Wisconsin ranked second in the country—behind California—for most dairy farm bankruptcies from 2000 to 2019. The dairy state held the dubious distinction of being home to the greatest number of farm bankruptcies in 2019 and 2020 before leveling off in 2022. During roughly that same time from 2003 to 2021, according to the US Dairy Export Council, dairy exports steadily increased.

These facts should make our legislators rethink how their policies affect farmers.

A group of congressional representatives recently sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai denouncing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) dispute settlement ruling that continues to allow the Canadian government to limit dairy imports into their market. 

Central to the USMCA, a product of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, involved ensuring increased access to Canadian markets for U.S. dairy exports. A 2022 decision by the same panel sided with the United States, ruling that Canada was unfairly protecting its dairy industry. As a result, our neighbors to the north made changes to improve market access for U.S. interests. The more recent ruling holds that such changes are sufficient.

Still, there are larger issues here.

Our legislators shouldn’t pit our country’s farmers against their counterparts on the other side of the border. In 2018, Wisconsin farmers showed considerable interest in partnering with Canadian producers to implement their supply management system, which stabilizes prices for dairy farmers by controlling production and coordinating supply with demand. And while Trump was renegotiating NAFTA, a coalition of farmer advocacy groups noted that the opening of Canadian markets to U.S. exports would have no significant positive economic impact on American dairies.  

Instead, rather than scapegoating Canadians, our lawmakers can actually help farmers by inserting policies that would help them into the Farm Bill.  This massive piece of legislation that governs most facets of our food system, including dairy, is set to expire in September of this year.   

One such policy is the National Family Farm Coalition’s Milk from Family Dairies Act, which has been endorsed by ninety-four food, farm, environmental, and labor organizations and includes provisions that would adjust the prices that farmers are paid based off of their cost of production, establish import and export controls and strengthen regional dairy infrastructure to balance supply with demand to create fair, competitive markets. 

My family changed our farm to increase production and feed the world. Our exports increased. But time has made clear that this approach doesn’t work for most farmers. Our legislators need to take this opportunity to get our own house in order by getting behind policies that could assure farmers fair prices rather than repeating past mistakes.

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