Biogas brings benefits – but also questions

Biogas brings benefits – but also questions

Indian dairy farmer

Animal farms of all sizes are beginning to use biogas technology to create a form of non-fossil fuel energy. The use is controversial at the size of large-scale factory farms, where opponents argue that the technology perpetuates the factory farming problem as biogas revenue could encourage industry growth and is simply a means of greenwashing an inherently polluting and inhumane industry.

For smaller scale farms-namely village farmers of developing nations- controversy, thus far, remains unspoken. For small-scale village farmers, a biogas plant seems to bring nothing but benefits. But as with any newly implemented technology-questions remain.

In small village farms in India, manure from dairy operations is generating 24-hour electricity, powering the farmers’ homes and crop irrigation systems. This is a much needed resource in regions where government electricity is only provided a few hours a day. The technology also creates a no-cost nutrient-rich fertilizer, lowering farmer overhead costs. Furthermore, by selling the excess power and fertilizer, biogas plants supplement farmers’ income. And as an added advantage-biogas plants reduce the irritating smell of cow manure.

Potentially, animals could experience positive outcomes as well. Such as, will the revenue generated from biogas plants discourage abandonment of older dairy cows and male calves? An issue of major concern to countries such as India, where abandoned cows are left to wander the streets. Also, the technology could be used to provide much-needed revenue and support to sanctuaries and gosholas that provide homes for some of these aforementioned abandoned cows.

It seems like an all-around win-win situation. But questions remain that warrant answers.

Will biogas plant technology encourage inhumane cow confinement? As one farming advocate argues, “[biogas]…’solves’ a manure problem that would not even exist if cows were allowed to graze on pasture rather than being confined indoors.” And, does the same looming question that exists for factory farms need to be asked for small-scale plants as well–will the technology encourage industry growth? In other words, could biogas technology potentially encourage the growth of indoor, confined dairy operations at the village level, perhaps being an antecedent to the development of small-scale factory farms? -Factory farms that will ultimately introduce an entirely new set of environmental and animal welfare issues as is discussed in
Brighter Green’s
policy papers.

Village biogas plants introduce many positive opportunities for traditional farmers. But as with any technological advancement, long term outcomes must be considered as both benefits and costs are weighed and thoroughly analyzed.

Photo courtesy of ILRI.