From DMI to NZI to DS4G: Harper, McCloskey explain how scale will drive dairy to net zero

Author’s Note: This is part one in a multi-part series about DMI’s Dairy Scale for Good piece of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Net Zero Initiative.

By Sherry Bunting, updated from publication in Farmshine, April 23, 2021

ROSEMONT, Ill. — “Looking at the past 50 years of impressive achievement, everything ladders up to milk efficiency. It’s less land. It’s less manure. It’s less water and less carbon, but it’s all about that milk,” said Caleb Harper, executive director of the Dairy Scale for Good (DS4G) piece of the DMI Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Net-Zero Initiative (NZI).

“For the next 50 years, what if it was all about everything other than the milk. As we continue to advance toward yield of milk… you’ll start to see a rise in the importance of everything else,” said Harper, posing a “value proposition” for the dairy industry.

Harper, along with Dr. Mike McCloskey, of Fair Oaks Farm, Fairlife and Select Milk Producers, talked about NZI and DS4G in an online Balchem ‘real science lecture series’ earlier this month. McCloskey is an officer on the board of National Milk Producers Federation and has chaired the DMI Innovation Center’s Sustainability Initiative since inception.

The future being created, according to Harper and McCloskey, is one of dairy being recognized as an “irreplaceable ecosystem asset — an environmental solution — inside a comprehensive management plan for emissions reduction inside of animal ag livestock.”

Citing the Nestle and Starbucks sponsorships and others coming on near term, Harper said the pilot projects associated with each company will be located in separate supply chains. The sponsorships are being made, he said, because these companies have made big commitments to reducing carbon.

“As checkoff, one of our limitations is the ability to do on-farm work, especially around technology acquisition or measurement, so we need these third-party dollars to come in and be the catalyst to get living laboratories set up,” Harper explained.

Before Harper’s presentation about how the Net Zero Initiative builds-out the ‘everything else’ pieces, McCloskey gave historical context about the birth of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy in 2007.

“The trajectory (since 1940) is just phenomenal when you lay out the statistics,” said McCloskey. “We came together – National Milk, DMI, USDEC – and had a great meeting of the minds (in 2007). We said this natural sustainability progress will continue, but we need to accelerate it and be catalytic in how we can become the organization to drive this at a faster speed to net-zero.”

According to McCloskey, 80% of the nation’s milk is represented at this NZI table, and the dairy industry is the one to “really come out of the gate on this.”

The whole value chain from distributors to processors to retailers and companies that create packaging (are represented), so we have a really good understanding of the entire value chain and can focus on how to eliminate carbon footprint to bring it to net-zero,” he said.

The baseline life-cycle assessments (LCA) were the first steps 10 to 13 years ago to figure out “exactly where” the carbon was coming from, and the April lecture discussion focused field to farm, noting that the processors have a separate working group looking post-farm through consumption.

McCloskey said the LCA categorized carbon in 4 areas:

1) Farming (feed production) practices
2) Manure management
3) Enteric emissions from cows
4) Energy intensity of the operation (including renewables)

“Once we knew where the carbon was coming from, we started initiatives to find processes and technologies to innovate and accelerate the process to net-zero even faster,” said McCloskey, explaining the heavy participation from companies serving on committees and through initiatives these past 13 years.

Then, a year and a half ago, “we committed to the term net-zero,” he said. “That was a big jump.”

This bit of history set the stage for Harper to talk about the part of the Net Zero Initiative he heads up: Dairy Scale for Good (DS4G).

Harper was hired by DMI last May for the DS4G position just weeks after exiting M.I.T.’s Media Lab April 30th, after his OpenAg Initiative there came under scrutiny and was quietly closed.

“Caleb is looking at the four areas and how we can take technologies and processes and innovate them into DS4G,” said McCloskey.

Harper noted that dairy and agriculture are not operating in a vacuum. He said the first “bold commitments” to net-zero time frames between now and 2050 were made by big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, followed by food brands, companies across the food value chain, and then the agricultural input sector.

Throughout his presentation, Harper referenced the Biden administration policies the work hinges on, using much of the same coordinated language that surfaces via the World Economic Forum Great Reset and United Nations Food Systems Summit and what is called “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” in which technology is already rapidly accelerating.

“We’re seeing a shift in philosophy and it’s being driven by all of these commitments,” said Harper, insisting that, “It’s being driven, of course, by consumers.”

He showed pre-Covid poll statistics from the Hartman group. One in particular noted that 88% of consumers surveyed “would like brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical in their daily lives.”

“Dairy has made the commitment to being an environmental solution,” said Harper, which means becoming carbon neutral or better, optimizing water use while maximizing recycling, and improving water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients.

Three working groups or initiatives were formed within the field-to-farm Net Zero Initiative: 1) Research, analysis and modeling; 2) Viability study, which is DS4G headed by Harper; and 3) Adoption for collective impact.

The Adoption piece will distill and disseminate across the industry what is learned through research, modeling and Harper’s DS4G work.

It is all about driving consumer choices under this net-zero mantra. Industry consolidation also figures into this equation to “scale the process and drive out the risk,” said Harper.

Many of the numbers in Harper’s presentation were taken directly from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) white paper An Environmental and Economic Path Toward Net Zero Dairy Farm Emission.”

Harper cited environmental pressure and animal activism pressure on the U.S. dairy industry. He said: “This program (Dairy Net-Zero) is being supported by the World Wildlife Fund and others in the environmental space as a path towards a solution on all of these issues.”

Insisting that the Net Zero Initiative and DS4G operate with a “counter-balance” of environment and economics, the examples discussed by Harper included estimates for what producers may expect as returns for various environmental products and services.

Illustrating carbon footprint for a gallon of milk across all sectors from field to consumer, Harper and WWF maintain that the field-to-farm portion represents the largest potential (70%) for reducing CO2 equivalent emissions more than retail, consumption, processing and distribution combined. Harper said he sees this as work and opportunity. McCloskey had noted earlier that the processors have their own working group looking at emissions from farm to consumption.

The WWF white paper lays out the “business case” for the Net Zero Initiative, based on a 3500 cow dairy (a Fair Oaks site with 3000 milking and 500 dry). In fact, Harper’s DS4G work will exclusively pilot and model on dairies of this size.

“This is to make maximum impact on the supply of milk in the short-term,” he said. “If we look at the kind of consolidation going on in the industry, the herd sizes above 1000 cows are a small percentage of the total herd; however, (they account for) 55% of the milk production.”

Harper explained the DS4G concept this way:

“The idea is to use scale to address these (net-zero) issues so we can drive down the risk of adoption, the risk of market-building, the risk of technology… to bring that down to a level and spread it across the industry, across the milk.”

Walking through the technologies and processes that the checkoff-funded DS4G is “thinking about,” Harper indicated that this is “evolving”, and all revenue potential figures are “approximate”.

He mentioned a billion dollars of investment in digesters over the last few years from private equity funds, pension funds, and venture investors, with digesters representing — “rule of thumb” — one-third of the revenue potential of net-zero going forward. The new market opportunities driving that revenue potential, he said, are natural gas prices and the increasing value of the low-carbon renewable fuel credit price. The combination is what is attracting investors, according to Harper.

Harper said he has visited 100 dairy farms in 17 states in his first 11 months as the dairy-checkoff employee heading up DS4G. Of the dairies he has visited with more than 2500 cows, he said not one did not either have a digester or was breaking ground for a digester or in the process of planning a partnership around one.

He also talked about feed additives to address enteric emissions, cropping practices, and manure management technology, including ultrafiltration of manure as part of a “technology train” for the future. To be continued

-30-

(Author’s Notes: The WWF Markets Institute released its dairy white paper Jan. 27, 2021. A mid-February Farmshine report revealed the WWF mathematical error that had inflated the magnitude of CO2 equivalent pounds contributed by all U.S. milk production. WWF on Feb. 25, 2021, corrected this baseline to show the much smaller collective impact of 268 billion pounds CO2 equivalent (not 2.3 trillion pounds). Both Harper and McCloskey serve on the WWF Market Institute’s Thought Leadership Group. Harper also served as a board member of New Harvest 2017-19, a global nonprofit building the field of cellular agriculture, funding startups to make milk, meat and eggs without animals. DMI confirms that dairy checkoff had an MOU with WWF from the inception of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy around 2008 through 2019. McCloskey has chaired the Innovation Center’s Sustainability Initiative since 2008. In 2008-09, two MOU’s were signed between DMI and USDA via former U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack — the Sustainability Initiative and GENYOUth. At the end of the Obama administration, Vilsack was hired by DMI dairy checkoff to serve as president and CEO of USDEC 2016-2021, and earlier this year he became Secretary of Agriculture again after President Joe Biden said Vilsack ‘practically wrote his rural platform and now he can implement it.” McCloskey and Harper also have another connection. According to the Sept. 2019 Chronicles of Higher Education, Caleb Harper’s father, Steve Harper, was a grocery executive. He was senior vice-president of marketing and fresh product development, procurement and merchandising from 1993 to 2010 for the H-E-B supermarket chain based in Texas. According to a 2020 presentation by Sue McCloskey, H-E-B was their first partner in the fluid milk business in the 1990s, followed by Kroger. According to the Houston Chronicle, the McCloskeys also partnered with H-E-B in 1996 to produce Mootopia ultrafiltered milk, an H-E-B brand. This was the pre-cursor to fairlife, the ultrafiltered milk beverage line in which DMI invested checkoff funds through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy partnering with the McCloskeys, Select, and Coca Cola.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s