By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Sept. 16, 2022
Dairy farmers are being used without regard. Their future ability to operate is right now being negotiated, and they are paying those negotiators through their 15-cents-per-hundredweight mandatory checkoff with no idea how the negotiations will ultimately affect their businesses and way of life.
Inflated baselines and an inflated methane CO2 equivalent assigned to cows is setting the stage for a head-on collision, a train wreck on the misaligned track laid by DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
In fact, the Net Zero Initiative has been designed to help everyone but the dairy farmer. It sets up a methane money game for carbon traders at the expense of those dairy farms that have long been environmentally conscious with no-till, cover crops, grazing, and other practices already on their farms.
Such farms will be of no use in what is shaping up to be a focus on harvesting reductions, not attaining neutrality, in DMI’s Net Zero Initiative (NZI).
Small and mid-sized dairy farms that are already at or near carbon-neutral could show smaller reductions for the industry to harvest.
Conversely, the largest dairies installing the newest biogas systems are realizing even this route could become a dead-end because the credits are signed over and sold for big bucks, a few bucks get kicked back to the dairy, but the methane capture becomes the property of other industries outside of the dairy supply chain.
If the industry does not act now to stop the NZI train for a period of re-examination, adjustment and correction, then the current trajectory may actually move food companies clamoring for reductions ever closer to alternatives and analogs that boast their climate claims solely on the fact that they are produced without cows.
This is a big money game that is operating off the backs of our cows, and the checkoff has been at best complicit as a driver.
RNG (renewable natural gas) operators are signing up large (3000+ cows) dairies left and right for digesters and covered lagoons to capture methane piped to clustered scrubbing facilities to be turned into renewable fuel for vehicles or electricity generation. Meanwhile dairy protein analogs are being created without cows by ‘precision fermentation’ startups partnering with the largest global dairy companies.
In turn, millions if not billions of dollars in carbon credits are generated while farmers and their milk buyers will be left figuring out how to show their reductions when they are left holding the inflated methane bag.
Six organizations, four of them non-profits under the DMI umbrella, officially launched the Net Zero Intitiative (NZI) in the fall of 2019, five months after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made headlines talking about it in a Senate hearing while he was pulling down a million-dollar salary as a DMI executive in 2018.
NZI is the proclaimed vehicle for negotiating the terms for U.S. Dairy to continue, terms based on showing carbon reductions that many family farms may find difficult to meet — especially if the farm is already at or close to carbon neutral.
As DMI’s sustainability negotiators data-collect all previous reductions into farm-by-farm comprehensive baseline estimates, where will those farms find new reductions?
According to DMI staff, over 2000 dairy farms have already gone through their environmental stewardship review via the FARM program to establish their “comprehensive estimates.”
The six organizations, four of them filing IRS 990s under the national dairy checkoff, that launched NZI are: Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and Newtrient, along with the other two organizations being National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
They have collectively bought-into the global definition that inflates the CO2 equivalent used for methane, effectively committing the cow to perpetual GHG purgatory.
Because the NZI structure is based on continually showing GHG reductions, no farm is insulated with a get-out-of-jail-free-key — not even the largest farms with the most advanced biogas systems.
Why haven’t checkoff funds been used to defend the cow – to get the numbers right, to get the current practices farmers have invested in counted toward reductions not baselines, and to get the methane CO2 equivalent correct — instead of giving in to this notion that feels an awful lot like ‘cows are bad and we are committed to making them better?’
Perhaps it was ignored or embraced because this inflated methane CO2 equivalent gives the suite of tech tools being assembled by DMI’s Newtrient a bigger runway to show reductions — a money maker for the RNG biogas companies and others that will in many cases end up owning the carbon credits after paying the farmer a nominal fee.
Carbon trading rose 164% last year to $851 billion, according to a Reuters January 2022 report. A big chunk of this is coming from the methane capture and fossil fuel replacement of RNG biogas projects, mostly in California but popping up elsewhere at a rapid rate and mostly traded on the California exchange.
Farmers are getting some money for these projects, but they don’t own the carbon credits once they are sold or signed over. When they are sold outside of the dairy supply chain, this reduction becomes someone else’s property, so it is no longer part of the dairy farm’s footprint nor the footprint of their milk buyer.
Likewise, this inflated methane equivalent — along with the emphasis on reductions, not neutrality — has some processors wondering if they’ll be able to come up with the Scope 3 reductions they need in ESG scoring.
They are facing upstream pressure from retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies as well as asset managers to show reductions, and they have counted on big numbers from their Scope 3 suppliers, the dairy farms.
The problem for dairy processors and dairy farmers comes down to the central definitions of methane equivalent and carbon asset ownership — the rights of farmers to own their past, present and future reductions, whether or not they’ve signed them over as offsets to a milk buyer or a project investor and whether or not they’ve sold the resulting credits on a carbon exchange, and whether or not they’ve installed new practices that are now part of a baseline but represent a new investment every year as they operate their businesses.
Back in June, the American Dairy Coalition added this concern to their list of federal milk pricing priorities because of the impact this climate and carbon tracking will have on milk buying and selling relationships and contracts — and the lack of clarity or fairness in this deal for essential food producers at the origination point that is closest to nature, the farm.
ADC worded their “carbon asset ownership” priority this way: “No matter where a dairy farm’s milk is processed, that farm should be able to retain 100% ownership at all times of its earned and achieved carbon assets, even if this information is shared with milk buyers to describe the resulting products that are made from the milk.”
For its part, IDFA took a swing last Friday, going one step farther to recommend global accounting methods that would allow the dairy supply chain (farmers and processors) to retain carbon credits even if they are sold on a carbon exchange or signed over to an asset company that invested in an on-farm technology.
IDFA executives penned the Sept. 9 opinion piece in Agri-Pulse laying out the concerns of their members who are starting to realize the future consequences of the rapid and inflated monetization of methane — and the race to sell carbon credits — leaving dairy processors unable to get those credits they were counting on from the farms that supply them with milk, while at the same time being stuck facing the cow’s inflated methane CO2 equivalent in their downstream Scope 3 even while they try to get reductions in their own controlled areas of Scopes 1 and 2.
When dairy farms no longer own their reduction or cannot show a large reduction because they are already virtually neutral, processors become concerned about how they will gain the Scope 3 reductions that are part of the ESG scoring the large retailers and global food companies are pushing.
All of this has come down through the non-governmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), investment and asset management sector via the World Economic Forum (WEF), the global corporate structures through the Sustainability Roundtable and through government entities via the United Nations Agenda 2030. DMI has been at those tables for at least 14 years.
“It is becoming clearer every day that the global accounting standards underpinning GHG measurement and reporting are biased against the very people making the (GHG) reductions,” the IDFA executives wrote in their opinion.
In other words, while some farmers are beginning to profit from GHG-reducing practices that are turned into offsets and traded on the carbon markets, the system is tilted against them because it leaves them without the offsets they traded and leaves them in a position of having to continually reduce in order to secure a position in the value chain.
IDFA points out that under the current rules, once the offset is sold outside of the value chain as a carbon credit – it is gone. The current GHG accounting system says only the buyer of that reduction can claim ownership.
Those farms can no longer claim their own reduction, and it means the company buying milk or other commodities from a producer cannot integrate the reduction into the description of their final product.
This weakens U.S. Dairy, the IDFA opinion states, and it makes dairy farmers less competitive sources of pledge-meeting carbon reductions for retailers and manufacturers – setting real dairy up for fake dairy dilution with the inclusion of whey proteins and other pieces of milk that are being produced in fermentation vats by genetically modified yeast, fungi and bacteria, as well as other analogs.
A bigger problem not mentioned in the IDFA opinion may be the inflated baselines that leave farms that have implemented best practices years ago positioned to show smaller reductions.
While the American Farm Bureau earlier this year lobbied against proposed SEC accounting intrusions for quantifying ESG scoring, it has been silent on the issue of carbon asset ownership for food producers. AFBF has also said little about the recently signed climate bill (Inflation Reduction Act).
National Milk Producers Federation, on the other hand, as reported last week, sang its praises for being right in line with where the industry’s Net Zero Initiative is going.
DMI voices its pride to have been leading the way, positioning its Innovation Center as founded by dairy farmers. They have conceded that dairy farms impact the environment and launched NZI as a collective pledge to reduce that impact.
In other words, DMI submitted to the idea that cows impact the environment, but never fear, through NZI, the Innovation Center and Newtrient, farmers will make them better, and turn them into a climate solution.
This is a fool’s errand given the inflated methane equivalent and the movement of carbon reductions to entities outside of the dairy supply chain such as paper mills, bitcoin miners, and the fossil fuel industry.
Did dairy farmers have a say in any of this? Not really. They were kept in the dark as this was developed over the past decade or more, and the boards representing them on the six organizations that launched NZI (four of them under the checkoff umbrella) have been duped.
Farmers are largely unaware of the NZI train, and their silence as it runs down the track becomes a further signal to the industry and to the government that they approve of the track they are on.
As the industry sits at this crossing, the Net Zero train full of dairy farmer passengers is barreling high speed down the track DMI has laid.
This train must be stopped because the future-bound track needs to be re-examined, adjusted and re-aligned so that the passengers are not ejected by the train wreck – the accelerated consolidator — that lies ahead.
Fundamentals must be vigorously revisited. Every passenger on that train, every dairy farm, must be recognized as an essential food producer, get credit for their prior investment in current practices, and be able to retain ownership of their carbon assets as part of their farm’s footprint — even if these assets have been provided, sold or signed over as offsets to milk buyers or project investors or traders on an exchange.
Furthermore, this train – built with farmer dollars – should protect the so-called founding farmers from being denied a market based on the size of their GHG reductions. If a carbon neutral farm can’t show reductions to its milk buyer, will that buyer look for other downstream vendors who can fulfill their Scope 3 reduction needs?
Will those vendors be other farms with larger perceived GHG reductions or will they be alternative analogs created without cows?
Nestle announced this week it is partnering with Perfect Day toward that end. In fact, the proliferation of plant-based, cell cultured, DNA-altered microbe excrement analogs for dairy protein and other elements are entering the market on big GHG reduction claims based on being made without the cow and the inflated methane CO2 equivalent she has been assigned!
The current standard for methane CO2 equivalency is inflated by orders of magnitude. Dr. Frank Mitloehner has addressed this repeatedly and other researchers back his view with efforts to change it.
As Mitloehner and others point out, climate neutrality should be the goal, not net-zero. Furthermore, the current methane CO2 equivalent is calculated based only on the much greater warming effect of methane vs. CO2. However, the current calculation does not account for the fact that methane is short-lived in Earth’s atmosphere — about 10 years compared with 100 to 100 years for CO2 and other GHG. It also does not account for the cow’s role in the biogenic carbon cycle.
Remember, DMI and company have ignored or embraced this definition. At the same time, the Innovation Center’s data collection of progressive accomplishments are included in the baselines from which new reductions (opportunities) must be found.
These two trains run in opposite directions for a future head-on collision on a mis-aligned track.
The bigger the perceived GHG problem, the bigger the reduction through technology, and the bigger the monetization of that reduction outside of the dairy supply chain. At the same time, this creates an even bigger problem for farms that are unable to participate in biogas projects, farms that don’t fit the Innovation Center’s 3500-cow-dairy-as-solution template, farms that may be carbon neutral or close to it already.
DMI and company have played fast and loose with the truth.
Farmshine readers will recall the glaring error reported more than a year ago in the white paper written by WWF for DMI. It showcased these biogas projects and the 3500-cow dairy template it proclaimed could be Net Zero in five years, not 30.
That paper inflated U.S. Dairy’s total GHG footprint by an order of magnitude! A Pennsylvania dairy farmer brought the error to Farmshine’s attention. In turn, the magnitude of the error was confirmed by Dr. Mitloehner who then contacted DMI. A corrected copy of the white paper magically replaced all internet files with no discussion from DMI or WWF. That number was changed, but all of the assumptions in the paper were left as-is.
Put simply: DMI does not appear to be concerned about inflating the size of dairy’s perceived GHG problem. The bigger the perceived problem, the bigger the reduction that can be monetized, but that is now happening outside of the dairy supply chain.