The low carbon cow conundrum

Arla is leading the race to reduce the emissions from dairy cows. But is it enough to balance growing global consumption? David Burrows reports.

What does a low-carbon dairy cow look like? Arla, the international dairy company, is trying to find out. Data released in April show that, on average, a kilo of milk produced by Arla’s farmers results in 1.15kg of CO2e. This makes them “among the most climate-efficient dairy farmers in the world”. Top performers across the 7,986 farms assessed manage 0.9kgCO2e. The figures are for emissions produced up to when the product leaves the farm.

For comparison, Arla noted that the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimated that global milk production emitted an average of 2.5 kgCO2e per kg of milk in 2015. This was down on the 2.8kgCO2e recorded in 2005, which is good news.

There are other estimates out there. A life cycle assessment, conducted by CarbonCloud for Oatly, maker of plant-based drinks, offers a footprint of 1.58kgCO2 for UK-produced milk. Unlike the figures above, this included transport, processing and packaging. In Sweden, the figure is 1.28kgCO2e. Emissions from the feed, the cow and manure management are responsible for the lion’s share.

Comparing dairy cows from one region or system with another is tricky, which is why Arla has gone into so much detail producing its own figures using information from its own farmers (the company is a cooperative owned by 9,700 farmers from Denmark, Sweden, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).

“Our main objective for our climate checks is not to compare or compete on CO2e levels against other dairy companies or farms outside Arla,” notes an accompanying Q&A. “Our objective has been to create the best tool to support our farmer owners in reducing their emissions further in the most effective way.”

The data are certainly useful. They set a baseline from which to work (1.15kgCO2e) and Arla wants to “triple the speed” of emissions reductions in the next decade. They also show the techniques being used to bring emissions down: better feed efficiency, a longer life for the cows, enhanced fertiliser management and local feed production all make a difference.

Critically, the information will also be shared more widely. “The unique data set that Arla farmers have now created clearly shows which activities will accelerate our reductions over the next decade,” explained Arla Foods chairman Jan Toft Nørgaard. “We will use this to decarbonise our farms at a faster pace and share our findings with stakeholders to help drive an effective transition for the whole industry. There’s a huge amount of value in this for all of us.”

The data will also be developed further. Carbon sequestration, whereby well-managed pastures and farmland can absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, is an area of focus. A collaboration involving FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, Mars, McDonald’s and Nestlé, among others, hopes to develop “internationally recognised and globally adopted carbon sequestration calculation guidelines for the dairy sector”. These will then be included in Arla’s measurements.

Arla is clearly proud of its current footprint per kilo of milk produced. And keen to drive it down further. Whether Arla likes it or not, though, comparisons will be made with, or by, other dairy companies. Customers, including those in foodservice, will also be paying close attention to the impact of dairy, not least given the rise of plant-based alternatives.

How much dairy can we afford to produce and consume, whilst staying within that 1.5-degree limit for global warming is a head-scratcher. That FAO report showed the carbon per kilo of milk had fallen, but global production emissions from dairy jumped 18% (to 1,711m tonnes CO2e) between 2005 and 2015 driven by growing global consumption. This can’t continue.

Methane inhibitors and lower-methane emitting animals could well provide breakthroughs but, as the authors, noted: “The scope to make large reductions in the
total emissions from the dairy sector without compromising output is limited.”

Arla has a long way to go to meet its own science-based target to reduce emissions per kilo of milk by 30% from 2015 to 2030 (and become net-zero by 2050). This data, as well as the sharing of best practice, will prove invaluable as the whole sector struggles to curb emissions. The fact Oatly boasts a footprint of just 0.44kgCO2e for its ‘barista’ oat drink will, surely, focus minds.

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