Milk, Moolah, & Manure: A Geopolitical Analysis

Karis Brown


The Environmental Protection Agency is backing a manure management technology that could totally fix the environmental impact of cattle operations and bring extra income for farmers! …or could it?


[chill bluegrass vibes]

When I say the words “cattle farm”, what images pop up in your mind?

Do you see Old MacDonald serenading has herd with E-I-E-I-O’s?

Maybe instead you see the scattered herds of cows, peacefully grazing off the sides of highways on your road trips.

Well when I think “cattle farm”, I tend to think of the less pastoral and idyllic CAFO. What are CAFOs, you might ask? CAFOs are concentrated animal feeding operations where animals are held in high density within the same space for at least 45 days.

Imagine hundreds up to thousands of animals packed into close quarters where open grazing is but a dream. They’ve increased in popularity within the last few decades as a cheap way to secure milk, eggs, and beef for domestic and international consumption. The EPA considers a dairy operation with at least 700 head of cattle to be a large CAFO, but there are several thousand registered operations in the US alone that reach into the 5000+ head of cattle.

That is a lot cows.

[cow mooing]

And that’s a lot of manure.

[splat sound]

Manure management has been a hot topic within environmental academic communities as manure management alone made up almost a tenth of the US agriculture sectors carbon emissions and contributes a significant amount of water and air pollution through leaking volatile chemicals, hydrogen sulfide or arsenic. The EPA began regulating manure dumping in water sources through the Clean Water Act of 1972, but air pollution is still being overlooked by this agency.

Instead, they’re encouraging the use of biogas recovery systems with the claim that the use of biogas recovery systems at large-scale dairy and swine operations can reduce emissions and air pollutants and contribute a new renewable energy source to be sold back onto the market. For this podcast, I’ll be focusing on the dairy side of this claim.

[chill bluegrass vibes]

Biogas recovery systems are a nifty little device that use anaerobic digestion—that is conversion of organic material without oxygen present—to change manure into usable biogas. This biofuel is considered a source of renewable energy. Sounds like a simple fix, right? Deal with the manure and therefore alleviate all cattle pollution. Well, not quite. Let’s break that down a bit more.

The EPA’s 2018 Market Opportunities for Biogas Recovery Systems report lightly touches on the volatile chemicals that biogas recovery systems can deal with and proudly shows off the potential methane emission reductions that could be achieved with eligible farms. The landscape and water quality will be protected from leakages, run offs and all that deadly bacteria that might otherwise spillover from CAFOs according to the EPA.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. To fully understand the geopolitical impact of this claim, let’s look at it through the lens of the three major questions of Environmental Geopolitics.

One, how are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified?

Two, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?

And three, what is the spatial focus of this particular claim?

[chill bluegrass vibes]

To address the first question, manure management is set up as the major environmental risk in that mismanagement can pollute local water sources, local air quality, and the greater atmosphere. It can also lead to acidification of the soil when overspread as fertilizer.

What the claim fails to address is the true impact of industrial cattle operations, specifically the carbon emissions from the cow’s natural digestive processes. While better manure management is absolutely necessary if we plan to support the current size and number of CAFOs in America, the enteric fermentation of ruminant animals contributes nearly triple the methane emissions of manure management.

Enteric fermentation of ruminant animals is, to say it plainly: cow farts.

[fart noise]

More specifically, the term refers to the specific type of digestion that takes place in the stomachs of grazing cattle like cows or sheep. Even more specifically, the EPA has already acknowledged that dairy and beef cattle were the largest emitters of methane of all the animal types within the country in their 2021 Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The EPA doesn’t even regulate greenhouse gas emissions at CAFOs. Starting in 2005, the Air Compliance Agreement undercut the ability of the EPA to actually regulate emissions from operations, giving regulation immunity to CAFOs under the Clean Air Act in exchange for the EPA being able to monitor select farms.

So deal with the manure and deal with the methane. Sure. Even though these animals are constantly grazing and producing more methane by just existing than their manure would ever produce on it’s own. Quite possibly more methane than what is reported by the US data.

Even though as Penn State found, biogas recovery systems don’t really deal with all the manure. In their 2012 study, these researchers found that these systems can only convert 20 to 30 percent of the volatile solids within dairy manure, while the leftovers are typically compressed and used for bedding. So the manure really isn’t dealt with. It’s just converted inefficiently to fuel and waste product.

Speaking of the fuel, the state of Vermont actually considers burning biofuel in certain commonplace engines a method of air pollution as a lot of CO2 is released into the atmosphere instead of methane upon combustion. The EPA considers carbon dioxide to be the lesser of two evils compared to methane, as methane has 25 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide. However, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for much, much longer than methane. Methane causes global warming issues right now, but we only leave more problems for the future as carbon dioxide keeps mounting in the atmosphere.

So what does all of this tell us?

This tells us that the problem of manure management is not totally dealt with by biogas recovery systems.

This tells us that actual reductions in our emissions can barely keep up with the amount of manure and carbon dioxide equivalents produced in the country.

This tells us that ecological modernization, or the idea that we can overcome and control the environment with scientific advancements, is failing our environment.

[chill bluegrass vibes]

Moving on to the second question, we begin to look at the role of human agency within and outside of the claim. The EPA’s report states that operations of at least 500 head of dairy cow should generate enough biofuel to be profitable. Assuming that cows produce just the right percentage of solids in their manure. Farms that can produce more biofuel than what is needed to power the farm are able to sell that surplus back into the energy market. However, academic and individual reports say otherwise.

Markus Lauer and his team found that an operation must have over 3000 head of cattle in order for the biogas recovery system to be profitable. Don Jensen, a dairy farmer from New York, said in 2017 that the operation and maintenance costs of his anaerobic digester outweigh the income he receives from selling the surplus energy.

The claim also fails to include small dairy farms in its plan, despite small dairy farms making up three quarters of current American operations as of 2017. These farms, ranging from one to 100 head of cattle, only control about 17 percent of all cows in the US. Large cattle operations from 500 to over 5 thousand head of cattle, like those targeted in the EPA’s claim, account for less than a tenth of all dairy operations yet control over 60% of the nation’s cows.

That divide is becoming more and more disproportionate. James MacDonald and his team at the Economic Research Service found that small dairy farms are rapidly closing and consolidating as large operations are more profitable and adaptable to milk price fluctuations.

Milk production, despite the closures and consolidation, has increased by over 2 billion pounds of milk products over the last decade. The US produced 17.7 billion pounds of milk products in October 2021 alone. However, domestic milk demand is on the decline and is only expected to continue to decrease. International exports and prices, on the other hand, are on the rise.

Don’t be fooled though, Americans are getting their fair share of milk. The Economic Research Service estimates that 141 pounds of milk products per person we’re consumed in 2020. That’s equivalent to over a quarter pound of cheese per day. I did the calculations with an approximate population of 332,084,796 people, as of New Year’s Eve 2020, that’s around 21.3 million metric tons or 46.8 billion pounds of milk products consumed.

[record scratch] Oof.

So what does all of this mean?

This means that large CAFOs are choking smaller and more sustainable ranches out of the market.

This means that large agribusinesses are already financially benefiting from consolidation, massive domestic milk consumption, increasing international business, and a lack of regulations around CAFOs from the EPA.

This means that the EPA is encouraging the use of biotechnology to fix the problems that CAFOs are causing in the American environment—a Band-Aid solution that encourages current agribusiness practices with CAFOs.

Whew, that’s a lot.

But if you’re ready, let’s take a deeper look into the spatial focus of the EPA’s claim and the dairy industry’s reach. The claim mainly focuses on areas of high dairy production listing California, Idaho, Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Michigan, Arizona, New York, and Colorado is the top 10 dairy producing states where biogas recovery systems are recommended to be used. The EPA’s biogas recovery system support agency, AgStar, lists a short amount of 273 biogas recovery systems in operation in small pockets across the nation.

However, no biogas recovery systems can be found throughout the Midwest and Texas which are high beef and dairy producing states. The EPA can’t convince Midwesterners to commit the time and money into building and maintaining this technology on their operations.

Zooming out, dairy is primarily exported to Southeast Asia, Mexico, and China. Hundreds of thousands of metric tons of milk products are exported to each of those areas every year. The US exports over a million metric tons of milk products each year, a fraction of what we consume but still a significant amount. The Economic Research Service Reports an increase in international demand for milk products. Jerry Cessna and his team found that dairy consumption tends to increase as the country’s income also increases.

But what isn’t addressed is how these countries became reliant on US food exports in the first place. Legislation like the North American Free Trade Agreement and political moves have destabilized international food systems like Mexico’s and made them reliant on American foods. Most rural cultures have lost their traditional dietary patterns to imperialist political moves, which has led to an increase in processed food consumption and public health problems.

So what does all of this tell us?

This tells us that the EPA is trying to boost the popularity of biogas recovery systems, but they haven’t been too successful considering the number of current operations in the country and the lack of systems in some of the highest producing states.

This tells us that imperialist political moves, or just plain sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, has destabilized on multiple levels the structures of less advantaged countries and increased their reliance on our exports.

This tells us that the US uses increasing international demand in conjunction with extravagant domestic demand to naturalize our need for a growing dairy industry.

Anyone craving an ice cold glass of milk right now?

I’m not.

Doing the research for this podcast, it’s become painfully clear to me that the humans involved, from the EPA and its favorite agribusiness CAFOs down to the American consumer, think that our actions are separate from our environment. However, the actions of our corporate government and consumer demand are directly influencing the air, water, and landscapes around us. A relatively new scientific advancement like a biogas recovery system isn’t going to solve all the problems that CAFOs are causing because the problem is so much bigger than just asking Cargill or Tyson to “pwetty pwease” use the tech on their operations.

The methane and manure that the US currently produce need to be dealt with. Sure. But the technology itself is inefficient and expensive, leaving little incentive for operations that don’t have thousands of dairy cattle to install them. The biofuel made through these systems just generates a different type of pollution. It’s only considered renewable energy because the US is expected to perpetually produce cow poop.

[splat noise]

The dairy industry is growing in favor of slowly forming cattle monopolies as the peaceful highway grazing cattle are becoming an image of the past. There are more cattle controlled by less people so the density of cattle operations is increasing.

That means more cow poop, more air pollution, but somehow we’re still fitting it all in the same space. The EPA is putting the responsibility of protecting the environment in the hands of the agribusinesses who are damaging it, rather than regulating the practices and emissions of the agribusiness is in the first place.

I found this to be an example of grainwashing, as talked about by Stephen Scanlan. The EPA is marketing biogas recovery systems like a revolutionary, life-changing green device. In reality, they’re only providing a Band-Aid biotechnology to fix the problems caused by current industrialized operations. The suggestion of this tech and the lack of regulations around CAFOs emissions are encouraging current habits like extravagant dairy consumption and increased international interference, instead of addressing that our habits just need to change.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cheese. I’m not sure what my body would do if I just cut it out of my diet all together. But there are ways we can feel hopeful about the future of dairy.

Katrina Tomas wrote about some simple amendments to the Clean Air Act that, if enacted and enforced by the EPA, can actually help to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions from CAFOs. The Clean Air Act regulates the emission of greenhouse gases only through the burning of fossil fuels currently. But the methane and nitrous oxide released in large amounts by CAFOs are regulated under this act.

Tomas argues that agricultural exceptionalism, or that the importance of food for human survival should entitle the industry to special regulatory privileges, has overridden the EPA’s regulatory power of CAFOs in the past. However, as we’ve seen from the rest of this podcast, we don’t really need that much dairy. We consume a lot domestically and we’re only sending more out of the country every year to countries we’ve forced to be reliant on us. Dairy, along with our other food structures, should not be exempt from environmental regulation.

CAFOs are a mess environmentally, economically, and ethically. I didn’t have enough time to delve into the animal rights issues behind mass confinement of animals or the international feed industry that goes into feeding our growing number of cattle—both of which are important issues facing the United States and the world.

However, manure management is absolutely essential for mitigating climate change as our cattle are driving crazy emissions of both methane and nitrous oxide. But changing our habits, both in personal consumption and regulatory legislation, is also essential for mitigation as CAFOs have been running wild in the country for decades too long.

[chill bluegrass vibes]



“Bluegrass Banjo Time  by Caffeine Creek Band, Pixabay

“Cow Moo Sound Effect” by wearefreeSFX is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“nice fart 1.wav” by IFartInUrGeneralDirection is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“Pouring Liquid into Glass 02” by Finnolia ProductionsSound Effects +

“Record Scratch 02” by Finnolia Productions, Sound Effects +

“Splat/Squish 1” by mrickey13 is in the Public Domain, CC0


Agricultural Market Service. 2019. 2019 International Dairy Market News Yearly Price Summary. Washington, DC: Department of Agriculture.

Agricultural Market Service. 2021. 2021 International Dairy Market News Yearly Price Summary. Washington, DC: Department of Agriculture.

AgSTAR. 2021 “AgSTAR Accomplishments.” Environmental Protection Agency.

AgSTAR. 2018. “Market Opportunities for Biogas Recovery Systems at U.S. Livestock Facilities.” Environmental Protection Agency.

Breckenridge, Leon. 2001. Anaerobic digester system. U.S. Patent 6,296,766, filed November 12, 1999, and issued October 2, 2001.

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