Letter to the editor: Farms getting a pollution pass

Vermont has known for at least 60 years that it is not meeting its water quality standards in Lake Champlain and that the major contributor to the problem is conventional dairy.

Conventional farming was designed in the years following Wolrd War II, when fossil fuels were cheap and abundant. The Haber-Bosch process, invented by two German scientists in the early 1900s, converted the nutrients in petroleum into fertilizer, making ages-old and time-consuming crop rotation and mechanical weed control obsolete. The protocol does produce mountains of cheap food, but roughly half the nutrients applied remain in the soil and eventually flow into the lake. They cannot be ‘managed’ once deployed.

The protocols that cause conventional dairy to pollute the lake are the same as those that pollute the atmosphere, and they are in their order of importance:

1. The importation and feeding of around 600,000 tons of conventionally grown grain;

2. The importation and application of tons of artificial fossil fuel derived fertilizer

3. The housing of more than one cow for every three acres under management on which that cow’s feed is harvested and her manure is spread.

Vermont has a long history of sweeping pollution from dairy under the rug. Today we realize that farming, like transportation and heating, must greatly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Consequently, in 2021 the Vermont legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandates that the state reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions 26% by 2025, 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. Vermont cannot sweep pollution from conventional dairy under the rug because Vermont must comply with its own law, but it cannot meet its targets without severely restraining or even banning the three conventional practices listed above.

Apparently oblivious to this fact, the Climate Council has decided that the dairy industry has the potential to sequester carbon and should, therefore, be provided Payments for Eco-Services, i.e., not be expected to lower its dependence on fossil fuels but be paid to continue farming conventionally.

The GWSA was enacted by large majorities in both the house and the senate and then over the governor’s veto, which means it has by definition the support of the majority of Vermonters. Yet the Climate Council’s preliminary guidelines for “agriculture” were not written to reduce dairy’s 16% contribution to GHG emissions. They were written—in keeping with Vermont’s history—to shield the dairy industry from the kinds of regulations that would. In fact, the Climate Council’s preliminary guidelines do not mention let alone regulate dairy’s dependence upon fossil fuels; they do not mention let alone regulate the three practices listed above. Neither are fossil fuels or the three practices mentioned let alone regulated in the so-called Required Agricultural Practices rules.

Conventional dairy’s responsibility for 45% of the pollution flowing annually into the lake (and 16% of the GHG emissions into the atmosphere) is not a “label.” It is a hard fact. It would be nice if Vermont’s conventional dairy farmers and their apologists at state spent as much time and energy actually reducing the industry’s contribution to lake pollution and GHG emissions as they spend trying to repair their image as one of its leading causes.

James H. Maroney Jr.


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