Dairy industry sustainability plans and global food producers bullish about keeping planet cool

Text by Aileen Macalintal. Photo by Mae Mu.

Cows. Innocent as they may seem, they are one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions. In fact, meat business and dairy industry were expected to outpace the fossil fuel industry in contributing to the climate emergency, reports said.

And so in the U.S., a dairy organisation has launched an industry-wide effort to target net zero carbon by 2050. In Australia, a supermarket chain is funding sustainable agricultural practices. Around the world, top food producers are working with the UN to achieve sustainability in the next decades.

Australia’s Woolworths helps dairy farmers in sustainability path

Australia’s supermarket chain Woolworths recently announced a fund that will grant $100,000 each over three years to Australian dairy farmers within its supply chain.

The Woolworths Dairy Innovation Fund will deliver $5 million in total grants for on-farm improvements. Sustainability and efficiency will be the focus. 

Cows’ manure and belch come with methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) known to be responsible for climate change. Because of this, dairy industries look for sustainable practices such as manure management. 

Basically, the balance between emissions and GHG removals within a company’s chain over a period pertains to net zero carbon. 

Photo by Mitch Hodge

Recently the National Farmers Federation has set a carbon neutrality goal for Australian agriculture, including the beef and dairy industries, by 2030, according to the latest Australian Dairy Sustainability Framework.

The Australian Dairy Industry Council, supported by the industry-owned national service body Dairy Australia, reported in the Framework that the dairy industry is now focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Specific actions include “keeping cows cool” through genetics and infrastructure. Examples are more heat tolerant pastures, genetic strategies to produce low methane emitting cows, and effective fertiliser use.

One of the Australian farm and dairy industry goals is to reduce potential emissions through carbon sequestration (carbon dioxide removal). Carbon sequestration in tree plantings will be critical in offsetting on-farm GHG emissions. By 2030, the industry could see 30% less emissions, or even potentially net carbon neutral, with carbon offset projects such as forests. 

Government is also key in achieving these targets. In October 2019 Australia’s agriculture ministers agreed to a national plan for coordinating the sector’s climate response.

U.S dairy industry sets net zero plans

In the U.S., modern practices in cow health, feed, genetics and management slashed the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 from 2007. The production requirements were cut down to: 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint, reported the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy

“As part of a 5th-generation dairy farming family, we pride ourselves on sustaining our land, caring for our animals and preserving our business for the next generation… In the end, we all want the same thing – a healthy planet for our families and our children.” 

Tara Vander Dussen, a New Mexico dairy farmer

In October 2020, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy launched an industry-wide effort that will help U.S. dairy farms implement new technologies and adopt economically viable practices. 

The voluntary organization works with leaders from across the U.S. dairy value chain. For its Net Zero Initiative, it aims to hit a 2050 carbon neutral goal.

“The U.S. dairy community has been working together to provide the world with responsibly-produced, nutritious dairy foods.

“With the entire dairy community at the table – from farmers and cooperatives to processors, household brands and retailers – we’re leveraging U.S. dairy’s innovation, diversity and scale to drive continued environmental progress and create a more sustainable planet for future generations.”

Mike Haddad, chairman, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy

To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the U.S. dairy industry uses “cow power,” among other sustainable practices. Cow power is the conversion of methane into usable energy (biogas) that can supplement electric power.

Meanwhile, the Center has also committed up to $10 million and partnered with Nestlé to support the Net Zero Initiative and scale best practices and resources on farms across the country. 

Global food producers target net zero

Nestlé, a signatory of the UN ‘Business Ambition for 1.5°C pledge, is one of the first companies to share a carbon neutrality plan

UN Business Ambition for 1.5°C is a campaign from a coalition of UN agencies, business and industry leaders. The call is for companies to commit to a net-zero target in line with the 1.5°C target of the standard Paris Agreement. More than 300 companies have to date signed the commitment. 

By 2030 Nestlé will halve its emissions, and achieve net zero by 2050. 

Aside from Nestlé, the other multinational food producers actively participating in the UN Business Ambition for 1.5°C are Unilever (UK), General Mills (USA), Danone (France), Olam International (Singapore), Pepsi (USA), NR Instant Produce (Thailand), Cloetta (Sweden), Chr Hansen (Denmark), and Ajinomoto (Japan).    

For Nestlé, its emission targets were approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a collaboration of non-profit organizations that is considered the international standard on net zero commitments. 

With nearly two-thirds of our emissions coming from agriculture, it is clear that regenerative agriculture and reforestation are the focal points of our path to net zero. These efforts will reduce emissions and improve biodiversity at scale.

Magdi Batato, Head of Operations at Nestlé

Like the signatories of the UN’s campaign, other food producers around the world can also target net zero by supporting farmers and suppliers in sustainable agriculture, planting millions of trees, and transitioning to renewable electricity in the next decades.