Biofuels from livestock: Making a silk purse out of a sow's ear?

With gasoline topping $3 a gallon in the U.S., biofuels seem to be on everyone’s mind. If you listen to the industry’s most ardent proponents, you might think they’re a silver bullet, giving us a clean, cheap, environmentally friendly source of energy. But not everything about biofuels is so rosy. In addition to making fuel out of plant sources, such as corn, sugar cane, and rapeseed, the industry is trying to “make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” by using the waste of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the methane generated by livestock to produce fuel.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pig producer, is using methane released during wastewater treatment to fuel boilers at its facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina. In Michigan, Smithfield is burning the greenhouse gas generated by a 10-million gallon anaerobic manure lagoon as a substitute for natural gas, and two of the company’s other facilities are also making biofuels out of animal fats and oils.

Another big meat company, Tyson Foods, has partnered with oil giant ConocoPhillips to create renewable diesel fuel using fat from beef, pork, and poultry byproducts. The companies expect production to start later this year and claim the finished product will meet all federal standards for ultra-low-sulfur diesel, generating some 175 million gallons per year.

Projects are also under way elsewhere in the world. Under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), rich countries can fund renewable energy projects in poor countries as a way to offset their own carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this has made factory farms in South America and India “attractive” investments. The CDM facilities use digesters to capture methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, to produce electricity.

While reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production is an important goal, it shouldn’t be done for the wrong reasons. Factory farming is an inherently unsustainable way of producing food, and encouraging its growth in order to supply biofuels won’t make it sustainable. Supporting small- and medium-scale livestock farmers in the industrial and developing worlds alike who raise their animals sustainably on grass, as well as eating less meat, are far better solutions to our environmental woes.