The dire future of dairy.
American families will pay an extra $64 to $162 million a year for milk by 2030, according to Politico.
The source of the price hike? Climate change. As temperatures continue to climb, the US Agriculture Dept (USDA) projects heat stress will have drastic effects on cows’ ability to produce.
Why climate change impacts dairy production
When cows experience heat stress, they naturally expend less energy on milk production as the act itself already raises their body temperature. Dairy farmers who want to keep pace will have to increase the size of their herd, and their budget to maintain those animals — including their feed. And because the crops (corn and grain) used to feed livestock are also subject to heat stress, farmers will be footing higher bills as crop yields also shrink.
In a cruel twist, mitigating the outlined effects of climate change has very real potential to fuel the problem. In short, larger operations equate to larger carbon footprints. And a larger carbon footprint means higher temperatures.
According to the UN, the systems in place to produce, package, and distribute food generate one-third of greenhouse gas emissions — with meat and dairy specifically accounting for 14.5% of global warming levels.
Diary production produces methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Methane, the most potent of the three gasses (warming 28 times faster the CO2), is produced as livestock digests food. Cows produce methane directly through their burps but modern farming practices have also made manure a major contributor of the dangerous greenhouse gas.
Cows poop. A lot. A mature 1,400-pound cow can generate 14 gallons (roughly 120 pounds) of feces and urine every day. Multiply that by a couple hundred and you begin to understand how much a single herd might produce.
Large-scale farm operations are more likely to keep herds confined in concentrated areas where manure must be removed and relocated. It’s become common practice for these facilities to utilize pits or “lagoons” to store and decompose waste. These vessels serve as digesters to decompose manure. Bacteria is added to eat the organic matter — a process that fuels large amounts of methane gas. Which must then be pumped out.
Can we fix it?
Please note the use of “can” versus “how.” The how is simple. The most efficient way to solve our cow conundrum is a change of diet — specifically less meat and less dairy. However, a global and major lifestyle shift seems unlikely especially given how integral dairy and meat is in the everyday diet. The question instead becomes what can we do to improve these practices?
One experimental approach being tested in the Northeast has dairy farmers harnessing the methane created and recycling it to serve as fuel. On the surface this reads as a win, win. Lower emissions, and less reliance on traditional fossil fuels. However, the practice itself is expensive, faces a number of regulatory hurdles, and creates a new set of environmental concerns as a sizeable amount of that “fuel” is being transported out of state.
Multi-million dollar ice cream giant, Ben & Jerry’s is also exploring methane recycling in a pilot program to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. The pilot program, playfully named Project Mootopia includes 15 farms and takes a holistic approach to lowering emissions and improving sustainability with the ultimate goal is to cut emissions in half.
In a recent interview with Fast Company, Ben & Jerry’s global sustainability manager, Jenna Evans explained the multi-prong approach to Mootopia. In addition to harnessing methane for fuel (and fertilizer), they are also working with farmers to test seaweed supplements (that could potentially cut down the emissions of cow burps) and encourage more regenerative farming practices to improve the soil.
Evans told Adele Peters, “We’re working really collaboratively with the farms to try to see what works because we don’t know what will stick or what will make sense financially.”
As with any pilot program, Ben & Jerry’s hopes to identify the most efficient practices and bring them to scale. Both within their own operation, and the industry itself.
Evan stresses this. “We want to be really transparent in this project so that other brands can learn as we’re learning; and so that we will take the most successful and feasible practices forward.”
I for one appreciate the efforts of an ice cream company to potentially save dairy farming. Because what is life without charcuterie boards full of wonderful cheeses or dessert without ice cream? But whatever the future holds for the industry, it’s going to be expensive — whether that’s the implementation of new technologies and equipment now to stave off emissions, or the price of adjustment once farmers begin to feel the effects of warming. However, the sooner we act, the less likely the consumer will be the one to foot that bill.
Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.