The largest organic dairy company says it wants to go beyond carbon neutral

Cattle call.
Cattle call.
Image: Reuters/Kham
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The world’s largest organic dairy company wants to tackle its contribution to the growing climate crisis. But to find success, it will have to look well beyond its dairy cow pastures.

By 2025, Horizon Organic said it plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. But it will also seek to eliminate more carbon dioxide than it emits—a plan that falls in step with the goals set by Horizon’s parent company Danone, the world’s largest B Corp.

To be a B Corp, a for-profit company must adopt a commitment to good governance, being fair to its workers, serving its community, being a good environmental steward, and upholding customer interests. To that end, Danone chairman Emmanuel Faber has spent the last six months explaining how its collection of food companies will address the threat of climate change.

“The food system that we have build over the last century is a dead-end for the future,” Faber said at the United Nations in September 2019.

Horizon Organic says it will approach its plan from multiple angles. First, the company will provide $15 million in grants and loans to the more than 600 family farmers who supply the company with its milk. That money will provide training and technology to implement more sustainable on-farm practices, using more efficient fuels and incorporating soil health practices to sequester more carbon.

The company will also explore animal feed additives that cut down on the amount of methane that cows produce during enteric fermentation. Methane has an estimated 20 to 30 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide—so those emissions add up. The beef industry gets a lot of attention for its contribution to global emissions, with roughly 996 million beef cows around the world, but the dairy industry contributes too: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates there are more than 264 million dairy cows.

The idea of modifying cows’ methane output isn’t as far out as it seems. A team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel have learned that farmers can select dairy and beef cows specifically based on the makeup of their gut microbiomes, picking breeds that naturally create less methane. Other science out of the University of California-Davis has show that by supplementing cow feed with seaweed, some cows’ methane production could be decreased by as much as 60%.

Horizon Organic’s goals are lofty ones. To measure its success, the company says that an initial life-cycle assessment, being looked over by a third party, is almost finished. The company is also working with EcoPractices, a consulting firm, on a sustainability analysis, and will partner with The Carbon Trust, another third-party certifier, to prove its products are carbon neutral.

“I think it’s always positive to see announcements like this,” says Richard Waite, a researcher in the food program at World Resources Institute. “Those are the types of things that will definitely be needed to decrease dairy emissions as much as possible.”

Waite noted, though, that there are still lots of unknowns around large-scale carbon sequestration with soil, which is part of Horizon Organic’s plan. That strategy is also a big part of Danone’s overall climate plan. “Really large offsets…are not likely, they haven’t really been proven yet,” he said. “It will be really interesting to see how that’s rolled out and monitored.”

Still, it’s heartening news for people who want to see corporations address how their supply chains impact the environment. Similar environmental goals have been released by corporations such as Microsoft, BP, Delta, and Ikea. But the proof will be in the details.