Letter to the editor: Large-scale dairy farming is inherently unsustainable
Thank you for the informative article about Bristol’s Four Hills Farm and its admirable modernization initiatives (“Thoroughly Modern Dairy Farm Takes Shape in Bristol,” Sept. 2).
While the efforts of large farm owners to lessen their environmental impacts should be enthusiastically applauded, an important subtext here remains overlooked: Welcome though they are, such attempts at damage control are a clear sign that we’re finally running up against the intractable agricultural conundrum of our age — how can fundamentally unsustainable mega-“farms” ever be made sustainable? The short answer is they can’t be. And in a dangerous age of climate crisis tipping points, it’s perilous to believe otherwise.
I say “farms” because, of course, operations this size are not farms in any traditional sense. All pastoral veneers aside, the use of that emotive descriptor is at best a deceptive misnomer for operations that host thousands of animals, generate tens of thousands of gallons of product and many tons of pollution each day, and require the acreage of a small town and an army of heavy equipment to do it.
That’s not a farm. That’s an industrial milk factory. And despite the best efforts and most honest of intentions of those involved to ameliorate the impacts of such facilities, the truth is that the equally outsized ecological challenges posed by such enormous levels of milk production are ultimately insurmountable.
There’s the effluent for starters. At a 1,000 pounds each, a herd of 2,000 head will generate some 164,000 pounds of manure per day according to industry averages. In addition to its epic flood of watershed-choking phosphorus, that fecal waste and the digestive tracts that create it produce catastrophic amounts of methane, a global warming gas 23 times more potent than CO2. Calculations suggest that a single cow annually releases roughly the CO2 equivalent of driving 7,800 miles. Now multiply that by two or three thousand animals. Biodigesters are better than nothing, but even if they capture and convert 100 percent of a farm’s manure gases (a fairly impossible feat), that’s just 10 percent of total herd emissions. The other 90 percent? That’s burped out of the other end of the cow and completely unmanageable.
Add to this the impacts created by the machinery required to support these massive herds. Here in Addison County, vast fleets of this equipment ply local roads and fields from dawn into the late night hours of our spring, summer and fall nights. In addition to subjecting communities to a constant din of unattenuated noise pollution — a well documented health hazard — the spreaders, harvesters, hay trucks, planters, plows and other enormous machines that industrial agriculture requires burn fossil fuels and emit their own toxic belches of sooty particulates, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, CO2, VOCs and hydrocarbons.
That’s an intrinsically dirty picture, yet no-till planting beats it by a country mile. This emerging agricultural strategy, the virtues of which your reporting quite misleadingly extolled, is hardly a solution but rather a bit of zero-sum sleight-of-hand that simply trades one terrible environmental sin for another. Yes, soil is left undisturbed, its losses are diminished, and run-off is reduced thus aiding our waterways. But rather than plow those fields to make way for seed, farmers typically treat them with toxic herbicides instead, usually glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup), a chemical that’s been strongly linked to startling increases in the risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and which the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Unless one is a Monsanto shareholder, what on poisoned Earth is even remotely sustainable about that?
Lastly, consider the animals themselves. Not once have I seen a single cow at one of these mammoth farms let free to roam in the fields under the sun. Instead, these creatures are treated as milk machines and chained by the thousands to iron rails for the unimaginable entirety of their foreshortened lives. (The natural life span of a cow, it should be noted, is 15 to 20 years, not five.). Put as charitably as I can, this is not only unsustainable, it is deeply and disturbingly inhumane and a stain not only on Vermont’s carefully cultivated image of agrarian harmony but on the very soul of our state itself.
None of this is to suggest that the steps our state’s factory farms are taking toward a better brand of agriculture are anything but commendable, especially in light of the costs involved and the essential challenges inherent in farming itself. But that’s the point: They’re just steps when at this late point in the climate game we need to go big or go extinct.
The only viable solution to factory farming’s unsustainable systems lies in rethinking our personal food choices and literally retooling agriculture from the ground up to meet that new paradigm, one that demands far fewer cows and much less dairy, and many more vegetables, legumes and other arguably healthier and more sustainably-producible foods. (Here’s a question to consider: How many people could Addison County feed if it wasn’t feeding cows?)
Biodigesters, computer-assisted micromanagement, and all the rest are useful tools, but they only treat the symptoms and not the underlying issue. The biggest sustainability problem facing dairy farmers lies not in how they produce but in what they produce. And that means that agriculture’s sustainability problem isn’t really agriculture’s alone. It’s everybody’s. And until we all change what we ask our farming neighbors to grow, I fear neither they nor us will ever reap a harvest of legitimate sustainability.
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