Got Filth? If Industrial Dairy Makes a Mess, Greenwash It!

As the cold, dark winter months wear on, you might be inclined to find a good book, curl up on a comfy couch and immerse yourself in the captivating realm of well-crafted literature.  Or you can sit at your desk in front of a computer and read the latest disingenuous propaganda churned out by industrial dairy’s marketing department.  Which is actually kind of captivating, too, in a make-yourself-want-to-bang-your-head-against-a-wall sort of way…

I've written before about Big Ag’s use of junk science and greenwashing to conceal the ugly reality of industrial food production and instead portray its reckless practices as the paragon of social and environmental responsibility.  Sadly, the trend is unlikely to end in the near future.  Indeed, just in time to kick off 2011 with green-spin, the industry group, Innovation Center for US Dairy (which includes such luminaries of environmental and social responsibility as Monsanto, Dean Foods and Walmart), released its US Dairy Sustainability Commitment Progress Report.

One might expect a document with such a title to address issues like the widespread water and air pollution caused by industrial dairy’s irresponsible waste management practices, or the public health threat posed by overuse of antibiotics, or the dramatic blow to animal welfare induced by extreme confinement and wanton use of rBGH, or the socioeconomic degradation incurred by communities in which dairy CAFOs are located.  And of course, if the project were an honest attempt to assess the industry’s commitment to sustainability, it would.  But Big Ag has never been big on self-reform, so instead, the report focuses exclusively on dairy’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and outlines a few strategies that the industry claims might be able to cut an underwhelming 11% of dairy emissions by 2020 (which, according to the report, constitutes a paltry 0.22% of total US emissions).

Clearly, reduction of GHG emissions is an important and laudable endeavor.  And as a guy who commutes on a bicycle and is currently typing this post in a 56-degree apartment because he opts to avoid burning gas for heat, I recognize that even small efforts to cut GHG emissions are worthwhile and, collectively, are capable of effecting meaningful change.  So it’s nice that dairy developed a reduction strategy (albeit remarkably modest).

But what’s lamentable about this report is that it’s really just a thinly veiled attempt by the dairy industry to depict a distinctly unambitious plan to address GHGs as a sincere and meaningful effort to transform itself into a pioneer of sustainability.

And here’s where we call greenwash!

The thing is, GHG emissions are only one of the multitude of environmental and social problems created by industrial dairy production.  And really, many of these other problems are much more serious than GHGs (e.g., the contamination of ground and surface waters with nitrogen, phosphorous, pathogens and other pollutants, the release of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, VOCs, endotoxins and particulate matter into the air, the overuse of water, the tendency to promote the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to irresponsible overuse of antibiotics, etc.).  Furthermore, while there are plenty of ways to reduce overall GHG emissions (e.g., promoting renewable energy, improving automotive fuel efficiency, implementing energy conservation policies, etc.), the other Big Dairy damages can only be addressed by abandoning the existing system of industrial livestock production.

In short, industrial dairy operations are far from sustainable; suggesting that minor GHG emission reductions will make the industry “sustainable” is kind of like claiming that if you inflate your Hummer’s tires to the recommended pressure, the resulting improvement in gas mileage will instantly transform the Hummer into an environmentally and socially responsible super vehicle.

Why resort to greenwashing?

Because it helps sell stuff!  The paper’s authors are actually surprisingly forthright about this aspect of industrial dairy’s motivation for funding the project; as noted in the report:

Most importantly, this initial research shows that if consumers believe dairy is not only nutritious, good-tasting and delivered at a good value, but also environmentally friendly, then their consumption could increase.

But in this case, greenwashing also serves the less obvious (and more insidious) function of enabling Big Dairy to position itself as the sort of responsible, upstanding industry whose great virtue should render it immune to public scrutiny or meaningful regulatory oversight.  This is the sort of PR move that makes it easier for dairy factory farms to gain exemption from environmental regulation, and to avoid having to test milk for antibiotics residue.

The exclusive focus on GHG emissions reduction is also pretty clever because it allows the industry to promote methane digesters.  This topic warrants a post of its own, but here’s a quick overview: digesters capture methane released during the decomposition of the massive quantities of manure generated by factory farms, then burn the gas in order to produce electricity.  This reduces the amount of methane (a potent GHG) released into the atmosphere – but doesn’t eliminate solid waste or address many of the other environmental, public health, socioeconomic or animal welfare problems created by industrial livestock production.

Furthermore, the technology is costly, and generally not economically viable except when heavily subsidized and/or implemented on enormous factory farms (otherwise, it’s tough to get enough manure in one place to produce a sufficient amount of methane).  As a result, the construction of methane digesters ultimately serves to subsidize factory farms and further entrench the industrial livestock production system.  And by the way, 48% of the emissions reductions proposed in the report are derived through use of digesters.

Stripping away the greenwash

Despite the utility of the modest GHG reduction strategies described in the report, it’s disingenuous to present this profit-driven scheme as anything but a carefully calculated (and entirely self-serving) marketing campaign.  But hey, if you're still convinced that industrial dairies are the sort of “green” business that you'd like to have built in your community, maybe you should see what they actually look like.  Or better yet, spend a few minutes standing downwind of one.

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Wanna get riled up?  Check out some other posts about Big Ag’s cynical attempts to greenwash industrial food production:

A New Shade of Greenwash

Not So Fast, Purveyors of Junk Science: Factory Farms Are Not “Green”