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Ben & Jerry’s plan to reduce dairy greenhouse gas emissions

By using regenerative agricultural practices to tackle cow burps and managing manure, Ben & Jerry’s is aiming to cut greenhouse gases from its dairy farm suppliers to half industry standards by 2024.

Unilever’s €1 billion Climate & Nature Fund is helping our brands take meaningful and decisive action to tackle climate change and restore and protect nature.

A new pilot project from Ben & Jerry’s is supported by the fund. Because dairy ingredients account for more than 50% of Ben & Jerry’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the brand is focusing on dairy farms as the best opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint.

The pilot will use a mixture of new technology and regenerative agricultural practices to bring the greenhouse gas emissions from 15 of the company’s dairy farm suppliers down to half the industry average, by the end of 2024.

Creating a combination of solutions

Through regenerative agriculture, Unilever and our brands are empowering and supporting farmers around the world in the switch to farming practices that help lower carbon emissions, enhance soil health, improve water resilience and increase biodiversity.

It’s clear that one mitigation option alone won’t help tackle dairy farming emissions, but a package of options could. Ben & Jerry’s pilot project will combine three key potential solutions:

  1. Banishing bovine burps

    Cows walking in a line across a field

    A cow’s stomach has four chambers. The largest of these is called the rumen. Microbes in the rumen work to break down food. This process produces up to 50 quarts (50l) of climate-warming carbon dioxide and methane gas every hour, which the cow then releases, mainly by belching1.

    Researchers have been developing feed additives, including seaweed, that can inhibit micro-organisms in the rumen. According to recent studies, mixing just 3 ounces (85g) of seaweed into their feed can result in cows belching 82% less methane into the atmosphere2. The pilot will provide a mixture of these ‘rumen modifying’ food stuffs along with a high-quality forage diet to help aid the cow’s digestion.

  2. Manure-munching micro-organisms

    Image of manure digester on a dairy farm

    Manure is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases on a dairy farm. A typical cow produces about 80lb (36kg)3 of manure each day. Multiply that by an entire dairy herd and you’re looking at a lot of dung. Manure has two major impacts on the environment. It can create algal blooms that reduce oxygen in rivers, stream and lakes, creating dead zones, and it produces methane as it decomposes.

    Manure digesters can break down cow dung using micro-organisms. Acting like a huge industrial version of a cow’s stomach, the digester heats manure in an air-tight tank to encourage bacteria to break it down. When the process is done, the methane is destroyed, renewable energy is created, and the leftover solids are used as fertiliser.

  3. Letting the grass grow greener

    Image of feed crops being harvested

    The world's soils act as the planet’s largest terrestrial carbon sink4, playing a key role in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a third of the world’s soil is now moderately to highly degraded and agriculture has played a part in this. So looking after the soil is one of the most important jobs a farmer can do.

    Growing more grass and other feed crops using regenerative agriculture methods will maintain healthy soils, improve the use of grassland, lower synthetic inputs, promote biodiversity, and raise the percentage of homegrown feed on farms. But perhaps most importantly, the plants will also capture carbon from the air and feed it into the soil, where microbes will use it for energy and keep it underground instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere.

Scaling the project up

The pilot will help Ben & Jerry’s learn what works from a technical standpoint and how the different practices might impact other parts of the farm, for example operating expenses or milk production.

“This approach to dairy farming could be a game changer,” said Jenna Evans, Global Sustainability Manager for Ben & Jerry’s. “It has the potential to make a meaningful reduction in emissions on dairy farms and help fight the worst effects of climate change. All of us, especially businesses, must take action before it’s too late and the climate crisis makes our world uninhabitable.”

The 15 participating farms will be split between members of the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative in the US and CONO Kaasmakers in the Netherlands. Once proven, there are plans to scale successful practices and technologies from the project across the brand’s dairy supply chain, and possibly throughout Unilever’s dairy network. The practices will also be made public so the entire dairy industry can benefit.

Tom Bellavance owns Sunset Lake Farm in Vermont and is a third-generation dairy farmer. He will participate in Ben & Jerry’s pilot project to determine the best ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions on dairy farms.

“Too often, corporations buy up carbon offsets from somewhere else to claim they are ‘carbon neutral’,” said Taylor Ricketts of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont. “Ben & Jerry’s is taking a more meaningful and direct approach: attacking the systemic causes of climate change in its own supply chain to achieve measurable, science-based targets.”

Along with Ben & Jerry’s commitment to dairy farm worker rights, the pilot project is expected to help the company meet the emerging demand for delicious ice cream that is climate friendly and socially just.

Sources

  1. Reducing Enteric Emissions: How Putting Our Cows on a New Diet Can Help Fight Climate Change | Ben & Jerry’s (benjerry.co.uk)
  2. Ibid.
  3. Fact Sheet | Biogas: Converting Waste to Energy | White Papers | EESI
  4. FAO Maps Carbon Stocks in Soil | UNFCCC