Dairy is known for its carbon footprint—partly because of the impact of growing cattle feed, and partly because cows’ belches and manure emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But by 2025, the dairy company Horizon Organic plans to become the first national brand in the industry to be carbon positive, meaning that it sequesters more CO2 than it emits. “What we’re committing is that Horizon will become carbon positive for the full supply chain, meaning from farm to table . . . from the feeding of the cow until the product arrives at the consumer,” says Mariano Lozano, CEO of Danone North America, Horizon’s parent company.
Dairy products and meat probably make up the majority of your carbon footprint from food; a 2018 study suggested that going vegan is the biggest single action someone can take to reduce their individual impact on the environment. The huge growth in plant-based milk, and the corresponding decline of cow milk sales, is due in part to environmental concern from consumers. Organic milk does have less negative impact than regular milk, in part because the cows don’t live on cattle feed produced with pesticides and fertilizers.
But Horizon argues that by helping its farmers shift to regenerative agriculture practices—techniques like planting cover crops on farms, which help sequester extra carbon in soil—it can reduce its footprint further. It’s also helping dairies move to renewable energy and switch to local cattle feed that requires less transportation, and it’s experimenting with new blends of cattle feed that can reduce cow belches. Some other dairies are also pursuing “carbon positive” goals, including Straus Family Creamery, a dairy north of San Francisco that turns cow poop into electricity that runs a delivery truck and other equipment, and is also pioneering regenerative agriculture techniques.
After it reduces CO2 as much as possible throughout its supply chain, Horizon will also invest in projects such as restoring forests and prairies to offset the rest of its footprint, getting a third-party certification from The Carbon Trust as carbon neutral. Then it will go further to sequester even more carbon, so it can call itself carbon positive.
“The paramount activity is to keep implementing and rolling out regenerative agriculture practices, such as cover crops, rotation of crops, and disturbing the soil less from lower tillage or no tillage,” says Lozano. Like several other food brands, Horizon is betting heavily on the potential for regenerative agriculture. Healthy soil can hold enormous amounts of carbon; typical farming practices, including tilling the soil and leaving fields bare, means that carbon is lost instead. By one estimate, agricultural soils could sequester as much as 10% of human carbon emissions.
It’s still too early to say definitively how well regenerative agriculture will really work—and the potential may vary depending on where a farm is located. Horizon is now in the second year of a detailed soil health study of 11,000 acres on seven farms, with 6,700 cows, in five states. “It is very important for us that whenever we are saying that we are rolling out different or better practices, this is building on our real data from our real farmer partners, that we work directly with them,” Lozano says.
Since many dairy farmers are also struggling financially, Horizon is launching a new fund, beginning with a $15 million investment, that will support its 600 farmers with grants and loans to adopt more sustainable practices. That includes regenerative practices, along with investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency at dairies. (Danone, Horizon’s parent company, already buys renewable energy certificates for its own manufacturing plants, but it’s also making a shift to using renewable energy directly at those plants as well.)
Regenerative practices are key to the plan’s success, Lozano says. Horizon wants to prove that the changes can also make farms more productive, improving the bottom line for farmers. “Our big aim is to prove that there is a business case behind these regenerative agriculture practices . . . not only making sense from the climate change point of view or the impact from the planet point of view, but also making sense from the business point of view,” he says.