Skip to main content

Common Dreams. Journalism funded by people, not corporations.

There has never been—and never will be—an advertisement on our site except for this one: without readers like you supporting our work, we wouldn't exist.

No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news and opinion 365 days a year that is freely available to all and funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

Our mission is clear. Our model is simple. If you can, please support our Fall Campaign today.

Support Our Work -- No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. Please support our Fall Campaign today.

Cattle are a major source of pollution in the San Joaquin Valley, methane, as well as the dusk fills the air around Fresno. Today, this 300–mile long stretch of factory farms and sprawling suburbs is the worst region in America to breathe. (Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Cattle are a major source of pollution in the San Joaquin Valley, methane, as well as the dusk fills the air around Fresno. Today, this 300–mile long stretch of factory farms and sprawling suburbs is the worst region in America to breathe. (Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Factory Farms: New EPA Emissions Data Should Guide Biden on Agriculture and Climate

We have to appropriately regulate the factory farm industry that has thus far successfully externalized the costs of its water and air pollution to the rest of us.

"We must listen to science—and act," reads President Joe Biden’s January 27 Executive Order on climate change. For the farming sector, the latest greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that the U.S. needs to transition away from factory farm systems of meat and dairy production to reduce rising agriculture emissions.

The EPA’s inventory tracks GHGs from all sectors in the U.S. from 1990 to 2019, and conforms to reporting guidelines set by the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Setting emissions reduction goals and reporting progress is part of the Biden administration’s action to reenter the global Paris climate agreement

Previously under the Paris Agreement, President Obama had pledged the U.S. would reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005 levels. The EPA inventory found that overall U.S. emissions are falling short of that pledge, declining only 12.9% from 2005 levels. The declines that have been achieved reflect “a continued shift from coal to less carbon intensive natural gas and renewables.” 

While overall emissions are declining, agriculture-related emissions that take up nearly 10% of total U.S. emissions continue to rise. Most of agriculture’s emissions are linked to the potent GHGs methane and nitrous oxide. The EPA found that since 1990, agriculture-related methane emissions rose 17.5%, nitrous oxide emissions rose by 10.4% and carbon dioxide emissions rose 9.9%. Most of that increase can be attributed to the rapid growth over the last three decades of factory farms, particularly those raising cattle and hogs, and the immense amounts of concentrated manure they produce with associated methane and nitrous oxide emissions. These factory farms confine thousands of animals in tight quarters and produce massive manure lagoons. Ruminant animals like cattle are already a major source of agricultural methane emissions because of their unique digestive systems. 

The EPA inventory likely undercounts the agriculture sector’s emissions. For example, the sector’s emissions linked to fuel for tractors or trucks, on-farm energy, some fertilizer production and farmland loss are all categorized within other chapters of the inventory. While the inventory does differentiate between feedlot and grazing and account for feed and geographic region, it doesn’t directly account for sustainably-managed grazing systems or organic systems that we know produce fewer emissions and can sequester carbon. 

The EPA inventory indicates that the shift toward mega-dairies in the U.S. over the last several decades, with concentrated manure storage often linked to water and air pollution, may actually be increasing emissions per dairy cow. The EPA reports, “While emissions generally follow trends in cattle populations, over the long term there are exceptions. For example, while dairy cattle emissions increased 9.8 percent over the entire time series (since 1990), the population has declined by 3.1 percent.”

One explanation for an increase in emissions per dairy cow could be the loss of thousands of small and mid-sized dairies over the last decade due to consistent low prices. Whereas smaller and mid-sized dairies can more appropriately distribute manure on farmland, large-scale factory farms produce much more than can be applied on that farm or even in the surrounding area. Additionally, these mega-dairies, along with hog factory farms, are liquifying their manure, which the EPA associates with higher emissions. 

The EPA found that methane emissions from manure management has risen 68% since 1990. The agency reports, “The majority of this increase is due to swine and dairy cow manure, where emissions increased 49 and 119 percent, respectively.” The EPA goes on to explain, “The shift toward larger dairy cattle and swine facilities since 1990 has translated into an increasing use of liquid manure management systems, which have higher potential CH4 (methane) emissions than dry systems.” 

The factory farm system of handling manure also results in nitrous oxide (N20) emissions, both through the storage of manure in giant lagoons and through the application of that manure as it runs off fields into waterways. The EPA found that nitrous oxide emissions from manure management have increased 40% since 1990.

Agriculture-related emissions linked to synthetic fertilizer production and application are also rising — with much of the fertilizer applied to the corn, soybeans and other feed crops for animals within the factory farm system of production. The EPA reported N20 emissions related to agriculture soils, such as fertilizer use, had risen more than 9% since 1990. Many of the direct N20 emissions from cropland came from the Midwest corn belt, “where a large portion of the land is used for growing highly fertilized corn and N-fixing soybean crop,” wrote the EPA.

Emissions related to ammonia production and urea fertilization both have risen since 2005. The EPA reported that, “Carbon dioxide emissions (related to urea) have increased by 121 percent between 1990 and 2019 due to an increasing amount of urea that is applied to soils.”

GHG emissions and other air pollutants linked to factory farms have thus far largely avoided regulatory oversight. And GHG accounting aside, there is rising pressure to hold the industry to account. Water pollution linked to hog and dairy factory farms has been an ongoing challenge for rural communities across the U.S. from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Iowa. The factory farm system tied to agribusiness giants like Smithfield, JBS, Tyson and Cargill has flooded the market, driving out independent pork producers and small and mid-sized dairies

Many of these highly polluting factory farms are often located in low income and communities of color. Rural residents in largely African American counties with clusters of hog operations owned or contracted to Smithfield in North Carolina have brought a series successful lawsuits charging the company with damaging their quality of life. Mega-dairies in California are located in the largely Latino communities facing air and water pollution in the San Joaquin Valley.

Rural advocates in Iowa and Oregon are pushing for a moratorium on new or expanding factory farms. Nationally, Senator Cory Booker introduced the Farm Systems Reform Act that would place a moratorium on new large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), while funding a transition for farmers toward more regenerative systems of animal and dairy production. The Midwest-based Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment (which includes IATP) has called for a stop to subsidizing new and expanding factory farms through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and government-backed farm loans. 

In April, the Biden administration is expected to announce new emission reduction goals as part of reentering the Paris climate agreement. Biden’s Executive Order directs the USDA to solicit public input on how existing programs can support voluntary efforts in agriculture to protect the climate. But to reverse agriculture’s rising emissions documented in the EPA’s latest data, we will need to go beyond pledges and voluntary programs. We will have to appropriately regulate a factory farm industry that has thus far successfully externalized the costs of its water and air pollution to the rest of us.


© 2021 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Outrageous and Shameful': Dems May Cut Paid Leave Due to Manchin's Opposition

Decrying the plan, advocacy groups vowed that "the American people are not going to allow that essential human need to be ignored and negotiated away behind closed doors."

Jessica Corbett ·


Open Letter Warns Trump's 'Big Lie' GOP Poses Existential Threat to Democracy

"Now is the time for leaders in all walks of life—for citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions—to come to the aid of the republic."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ahead of Historic House Hearing, Fresh Big Oil Misinformation Campaign Exposed

"It's always helpful to remember that big fossil fuel companies (besides being overwhelmingly responsible for carbon pollution) are also skeevy disinformation hucksters."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Very Welcome' Progress as Iran Agrees to Restart Talks on Nuclear Deal Sabotaged by Trump

One peace advocate urged all sides to reconvene negotiations "as soon as possible and with renewed urgency" to avert "disastrous" consequences for Iran and the world.

Brett Wilkins ·


House Progressives: 'When We Said These Two Bills Go Together, We Meant It'

"Moving the infrastructure bill forward without the popular Build Back Better Act risks leaving behind working people, families, and our communities."

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo