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Climate•7 min read
An industry-funded startup is the first ever carbon marketplace to give climate credit to a mega-dairy.
Words by Grace Hussain
The dairy industry has launched a new strategy in its appeal to rebrand milk to consumers as climate-friendly. Backed with funding from California’s dairy sector, the startup Athian has launched the first ever carbon trading scheme to credit industrial dairy farm operations. For now, Athian’s sole prescription for generating carbon credits is to feed cows a pharmaceutical that gets them to produce the same amount of milk on less feed. That particular drug, Rumensin, is also owned and marketed by Elanco, a leading veterinary pharmaceutical maker and major investor and “co-creator” of Athian.
Founded in February 2022, Athian bills itself as an “industry-led platform to fund carbon projects within the livestock value chain.” The startup hosted its first sale in January of this year, when the national milk marketing cooperative Dairy Farmers of America purchased a carbon credit from a dairy farm in Texas. That sale in turn enabled the dairy marketing firm to claim more than 1,000 carbon credits — each equivalent to a 1 ton reduction in carbon equivalent emissions — and helped move the dairy industry closer to its larger goal. Milk companies can now label products “climate neutral” in order to assure consumers that the dairy they buy isn’t contributing to climate change. In reality, dairy is far and away the worst milk option for the environment. Dairy emits around three times as much as any plant-based alternative, and requires nine times as much land over even the most land-hungry plant milk.
For now, Athian’s carbon credits are based solely on Rumensin, but there are other protocols in the works, including a manure management strategy and another feed additive, Bovaer. The startup is much more than an investment vehicle for the industry. There are millions in climate funding at stake. The company announced in mid-December of last year that it will be used as a platform by eight dairy projects awarded more than $80 million in total federal conservation dollars to reduce emissions from dairy farms.
In recent years, carbon markets have become increasingly popular with companies looking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The credits are supposed to be generated by actions that reduce or sequester pollutants, such as tree-planting initiatives or, in this case, a dairy industry pharmaceutical touted as an emissions-buster. Companies purchase the credits to counterbalance their own pollution — but critics of carbon markets say corporations are overusing credits as a way to avoid having to draw down their own emissions.
Worse, many carbon banks have been accused of exaggerating their climate benefits. One investigation found that 39 out of 50 carbon market schemes failed to meet the promised emissions cuts.
In recent years, the agriculture sector has launched a number of carbon markets based on farming methods, mostly relying on soy and corn growers who use regenerative practices like no-till and cover crops. The launch of Athian marks the first time a carbon market has given credits directly to the meat and dairy industry, which collectively contribute around 14 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy foods are particularly bad for your carbon footprint, making up as much as one third of the carbon emissions of a typical Western diet.
The startup oversees livestock producers every step of the way — selecting the practice that reduces emissions, tracking the impact, assigning it a credit value, getting the credit certified by one of the third party verifiers and, ultimately, supporting the sale of the resulting carbon credits.
Athian claims that feeding cows Rumensin has enabled the Texas dairy to cut emissions by more than 1,000 metric tons of CO2e. But the dairy’s cattle — roughly 7,000 of them (3,200 of whom are milked daily) — likely emit almost 20,000 tons of carbon equivalent each year, and that’s only roughly based on methane emissions, not counting land use or other sources, which would put the figure much higher. The drug Rumensin brings down emissions by maximizing how much milk each cow produces — using pharmaceuticals to eke out greater feed efficiency per animal in a system already maximizing efficiency over animal welfare.
Despite being marketed as an additive to boost milk production, what Rumensin actually does — according to the FDA — is increase feed efficiency. In other words, when fed Rumensin, cows eat less and use less energy. They don’t necessarily produce more milk, but the efficiency at which they transform feed into milk does go up.
Rumensin is also an ionophore, a type of antibiotic used frequently in dairy farms, but not considered medically important to people. While it’s less concerning than some medications in agriculture, some researchers warn that using this type of antibiotic could contribute to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. At least 700,000 people around the world die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and estimates suggest that as many as 10 million people could die by 2050.
For Athian and its funders, the launch of the startup enables the industry to move closer to selling milk and other dairy products as “climate-neutral.” The term “climate-neutral” is a relatively new label, and the way the industry uses it isn’t always clear to consumers.
Jennifer Jacquet, PhD, a member of the Environmental Science and Policy faculty at the University of Miami, has long researched the industry’s use of this and other greenwashing terms. “They’re claiming climate neutrality means no additional impact,” she says, which in practice means that as long as a dairy farm doesn’t increase their greenhouse gas emissions each year, they’re “climate neutral.” Here’s the problem: a dairy farm can call itself neutral by more or less just maintaining the status quo. But research shows the dairy industry’s status quo is already a massive source of pollution — pumping out almost 3 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions and just under a quarter of all ammonia emissions in the U.S. In order to reduce emissions from the way we eat and farm, the status quo isn’t good enough.
Study after study has shown that beef and dairy production is bad for the environment. But even as governments around the world are earmarking funds to cut back on food-related emissions, there’s little to no serious policy effort to reduce the number of animals we farm globally (currently in the billions).
“You really see meat and dairy [companies] do everything they can to not reduce herd sizes,” says Jacquet. She’s especially concerned about giants like Elanco that are trying to position themselves as “having solved climate change,” when in reality they are continuing to turn a profit without changing their business practices.
Marginally reducing the methane each animal emits does not do much when there are still simply too many cows. A single dairy cow produces up to 264 pounds of methane per year. But there are upwards of 1.7 million dairy cows in California alone — that’s a lot of methane, to say nothing of land and water use.
Climate scientists warn that emissions from the food system alone will increase global warming by almost a full degree by the year 2100. We know the foods that are fueling these emissions — meat and dairy are responsible for half of that warming, according to the research. But carbon credit schemes, like Athian, provide a mechanism for the dairy industry to maintain the status quo rather than make changes.
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