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How ambitious is the 'carbon positive' pledge by Horizon Organic?

Horizon Organic graphic

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

A few weeks back, Microsoft announced one of the most ambitious climate commitments I’ve seen from a major corporation. The tech giant will start by going "carbon negative" by 2030. Two decades later, it will have repaid its carbon debt — meaning that by 2050, Microsoft will have removed from the atmosphere all the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975.

The move raised the bar in a sector that is already a leader on climate action. It also made me think about what we should be expecting from the food industry, a sector in which emissions are higher than in tech and, in some cases, harder to reduce. Are Microsoft-level commitments possible? If not, what does real ambition look like?

We can start to answer this question because we’re beginning to see meaningful pledges from the industry. This week, for instance, Horizon Organic, a national dairy brand that sources from more than 600 farms, committed to going carbon negative across its entire supply chain by 2025. So let’s use Horizon’s pledge as a case study and ask how ambitious it is. Should we greet it with a standing ovation or muted applause?

Horizon is starting in the right place. It’s easy to buy cheap carbon offsets and claim carbon neutrality, but meaningful change happens when companies reduce the emissions they control or influence.

In Horizon’s case, the company is transitioning to 100 percent renewable electricity and helping its farmers draw down carbon by implementing regenerative agriculture. It’s also providing suppliers with $15 million of low or no-cost loans for technology that cuts on-farm emissions, such as equipment that captures methane from manure. Finally, the company is having an external auditor — the Carbon Trust — verify its emissions numbers.

I ran Horizon’s plans past Sandra Vijn, who leads the WWF’s work on dairy. She gave them a cautious thumbs-up. It’s encouraging to see a carbon-negative commitment from the dairy industry, Vijn noted, but impossible to properly assess the pledge without more details on how the company will use offsets to eliminate the emissions it cannot avoid. 

I agree that the offsets component is crucial — it’s an issue I’ll come back to in a future edition of Food Weekly. For now, let’s look at the emission reductions. Horizon’s plans should shrink the company’s carbon footprint by at least 30 percent, estimates Deanna Bratter, senior director of public benefit and sustainable development at Danone North America, Horizon’s parent company.

That’s an achievable result, said Matthew Ruark, who runs the Nutrient Cycling and Agroecosystems Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His studies show that existing technology can help cut dairy emissions by between 36 percent and 46 percent, depending on the size of the operation.

My first reaction after talking with Bratter was that "achievable" isn’t enough, because the scale of the climate crisis requires businesses to shoot for goals that test the limit of what’s possible. But Ruark pushed back on that, pointing out that change has to permeate through an industry.

Dairy operators have been slow to consider climate issues, and Horizon’s announcement is both a meaningful pledge and a challenge to every other operator: follow suit or explain why you can’t. "I give it a standing ovation," Ruark said.

Two final points before I sign off. First, I’m not sure what to call it when a company removes more carbon than it emits. Has the company gone "carbon negative" or "carbon positive"? The two are often used interchangeably, which can’t be a good communication strategy. I’d love to hear which you prefer and to get your thoughts on Horizon’s announcement. Shoot me an email at [email protected].

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