The Dairy Industry and the 2 Percent Solution

What's the carbon footprint of a glass of milk? It's more than a mere trivia question. Calculating, managing, and reducing the emissions of everyday products is a growing quest for companies across the business spectrum. But most products are multi-company affairs. So, it's one thing for a company to do this. It's altogether another thing to address climate change across an entire industry.

That's what's happening in the dairy industry, where a vast and complex web of players has come together to address their individual and collective climate -- um, hoofprint.

This week, the industry announced it has completed a carbon footprint study that measured the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing milk in the United States. Researchers followed the journey of a gallon of milk across its entire life-cycle: growing crops to feed cows; producing milk and delivering it to processors; processing, packaging and distributing it to retailers; and consumer use and waste.

That's a big task, made bigger by the fact that milk is produced in all 50 U.S. states by hundreds of large and small dairy farmers. Putting the information together was no doubt a gargantuan task. Figuring out what to do about it is even harder.

But the exercise underscores both the complexity of industrial systems and the need for collaboration to measure environmental impacts, share best practices, and optimize the entire process.

The milk study was conducted by the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas on behalf of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a two-year-old trade group, and is being presented this week at the International Food LCA Conference. It involved 540 farms, more than 210,000 roundtrips of transportation, and 54 processing plants -- about one-fifth of the U.S. total.

It concluded that the U.S. dairy industry's greenhouse gas production is about 2 percent of total U.S. emissions. That's far less than others had estimated (a 2006 Food and Agriculture Organization study put the number at 18 percent), but it's still a significant contribution to global climate change -- roughly equal to that of the airline industry. The airline industry, for its part, has pledged to halve its emissions over the coming years, and other sectors are being pressed to account for and reduce their emissions. The milk industry has its own plans to squeeze carbon emissions out of its value chain -- 25 percent by 2020.

It's not simply a feel-good thing. The dairy industry has been feeling the heat. "Our customers -- major retailers and food channels -- want us to do better," Erin Fitzgerald, vice president of sustainability for the innovation center, told me recently. "Our consumers are demanding this." Other players in the beverage industry, like Coca-Cola and Pepsico, are making their own moves to address their carbon emissions. "Even the financial community is asking, 'Are you able to measure your impact and quantify it for the future?'" Beyond that, says Fitzgerald, "It makes good business sense. It's better to be self-directed than directed by others."