Report says emissions of Europe’s 20 biggest meat and dairy companies exceed those of the Netherlands

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

The IATP report says the 20 biggest meat and dairy companies produce almost one-third more greenhouse gas emissions than the Netherlands.
The IATP report says the 20 biggest meat and dairy companies produce almost one-third more greenhouse gas emissions than the Netherlands.

Related tags emissions Dairy Nestlé Danone Arla Lactalis Dmk Müller Frieslandcampina

The emissions of Europe’s 20 biggest meat and dairy corporations — including Danish Crown, Nestlé, Danone, Tönnies, FrieslandCampina and Coren — outstrip countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, yet only three companies have committed to reduce their overall emissions from livestock, new research from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) states.

The report is being launched ahead of the European Commission Communication on “sustainable carbon cycles” set to come out this week.

The report, Emissions Impossible Europe: How Europe’s Big Meat and Dairy are heating up the planet, calculated the emissions of the 35 largest meat and dairy companies are equivalent to nearly 7% of the EU’s total emissions in 2018.

It said the 20 biggest meat and dairy companies produce almost one-third (131%) more greenhouse gas emissions than the Netherlands, the sixth largest economy in Europe, and almost five times as much as Denmark (492%).

It added the combined emissions of the 20 biggest companies equal nearly all of Italian oil giant Eni’s emissions, and are equivalent to 60% of the emissions of French fossil fuel corporation, Total.

The report also said seven out of 10 companies tracked over time saw their climate footprint grow between 2016 and 2018.

Shefali Sharma, European director at the IATP, said, “The climate footprint of Europe’s big meat and dairy companies rival the fossil fuel giants, yet they continue to operate with impunity. The handful of companies that have climate plans rely on accounting tricks, greenwash and dubious offsets to distract from the fundamental changes needed to cut emissions, while offloading many of the costs and risks onto farmers in their supply chains.”​ 

The IATP said analysis of the climate targets and plans of the 20 biggest companies revealed six key approaches — none involve a shift to agroecological farming or the production of less and better meat and dairy which offer the greatest potential to cut emissions.

It said companies such as Danone and Arla plan to offset their emissions through practices that impermanently lock carbon in the soil. Carbon is quickly released when the soil is disturbed or due to floods, drought and fire. It added many companies, including Nestlé, Danish Crown and Vion, plan to offset part of their emissions by converting animal manure into biogas.

The report said many companies claim to reduce emissions through “regenerative farming practices,” which purport to create healthier soils. It said companies invest relatively little in these practices and offload the bulk of the cost and risk onto farmers. The report said Danone’s funding for regenerative agriculture amounts to one day of its annual sales turnover, while Nestlé’s was equivalent to 1.8% of its 2018 sales revenue.

It goes on to state only four companies report emissions from their entire supply chain even though livestock production accounts for 90% of their emissions. Half the companies provide no emissions data, including France’s Groupe Bigard, which produces Charal meats, and all six German companies such as Tönnies, Westfleisch and Müller.

It said only Nestlé, FrieslandCampina and ABP commit to an overall reduction in livestock emissions, yet even Nestlé only aims for a 4% cut by 2030. Six companies, including Groupe Sodiaal, which makes Yoplait yogurt, aim to reduce the emissions produced per kilo of meat or liter of milk, which the IATP said allows them to expand production and their overall climate footprint. Ten companies have no targets, including Spain’s Coren Group and Italian beef producer Inalca.

The report said virtually all the companies with climate plans intend to use animal feed supplements to cut methane emissions from cow burps.  It added a UK/Swiss company, Mootral, is already offering “cow credits” to offset airline emissions.

Animal farming is responsible for 17% of Europe’s emissions and rose by 6% between 2007 and 2018. Ten countries — Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Belgium and the UK — produce the majority of Europe’s meat and dairy. Beef and pork exports increased by over 10% and poultry by 38% between 2005 and 2018, which the report said led to a steady increase in meat and dairy production and emissions.

“The European Commission will be handing big meat and dairy corporations an early Christmas present if it throws its weight — and taxpayers’ money — behind dubious soil carbon offsets and continues to promote biogas from industrial livestock facilities as a sustainable fuel. The Commission should stop financing industrial agriculture and support the transition to sustainable agroecological farming practices based on less and better meat. It should also put rules in place to regenerate rural economies and provide decent work in the food sector,”​ Sharma said.

The IATP said its emissions estimates are based on the latest available livestock production data at the time of calculation: Dairy figures are for 2017, beef and pork for 2018 and poultry for 2019.

The climate plans of the 20 biggest meat and dairy companies were assessed including, for dairy: Lactalis, Danone, Bongrain/Savencia, Groupe Sodiaal, Arla Foods, Nestlé, FrieslandCampina, Müller Gruppe and Deutsches Milchkontor DMK.

Responses from the dairy industry

All of the nine companies mentioned above were contacted by Dairy Reporter for their comments.

Only three responded: DMK, Müller and Nestlé.

Müller UK did not directly respond to the report but did send a link to its strategy, Building a consumer centric and sustainable business in the UK, which includes its four pillars of responsible sourcing, reducing its environmental impact, its people, and inspiring happier and healthier lifestyles.

That page says: “At Müller UK & Ireland we’re committed to ensuring our business operates through responsible and environmentally sustainable practices. Compliance with all environmental regulations and laws and considerations towards the environment are ingrained in our decision making processes, and we regard codes of best practice for environmental performance as the minimum standards that will be met.

“We fully support the ambitions and targets of the Dairy Roadmap, a crucial industry wide strategy developed to reduce the dairy industry’s environmental impact. To achieve these ambitious goals, we’re not only making many changes within our business, but we’re working with our customers and suppliers to help reduce the environmental impact of our products and operations.

“Whether that’s easing the strain on local water sources by increasing our water efficiencies, moving our products around the country more efficiently, eliminating all avoidable waste or innovation on packaging materials, Müller is doing the right things.”

Report is ‘livestock bashing’

DMK did not comment but instead pointed us to the European Dairy Association (EDA) for comment, as the report covers Europe as a whole.

The EDA’s secretary general, Alexander Anton, told Dairy Reporter the new report was “just another example of livestock bashing.”

He also said a constant dairy herd size does not contribute to global warming.

“The European and global dairy sector has fully accepted its need for action in the global climate challenge,”​ Anton said.

“Since more than 15 years, the EU dairy sector is working on solutions to reduce its environmental footprint, including GHG emissions.

“The IATP report calls these massive efforts to build up and implement our strategies ‘narrative’ and ‘window dressing’ – this is a punch in the face of the millions of dairy farmers and dairy people in Europe and beyond that are working every day to improve their farm and processing management systems with the clear objective to achieve a net zero carbon industry by 2050 at the latest.

“Nevertheless, the IATP report acknowledges that reducing methane emissions is not a solution for the climate crisis, but it would only ‘buy time for eliminating fossil fuel emissions over time.’

“Indeed, the radical measure of culling the European dairy herd of 20m dairy cows today and hence stopping all CH4 emissions from EU dairy, would ‘buy’ a maximum of five years before this global warming effect would be fully compensated by the ongoing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption.

“Methane (CH4) breaks down naturally and is resorbed by plants in a natural cycle of around 12-14 years. That’s why only increasing dairy herds have a substantial global warming potential (GWP), while a constant dairy herd size is not contributing to global warming and a dairy herd reduction of around 0.33% per annum leads to climate neutral dairy.”

Anton said in Europe, the total number of dairy cows is on this reduction path and assures a continued supply of milk and dairy with the worldwide lowest GHG emissions/GWP per liter of milk produced (1.3 kg of CO2 equivalent whereas the global average is above 3kg of CO2 equivalent).

“In other parts of the world, the dairy herd is growing – India for instance has grown its dairy herd from 104m cows in 2010 to 127m cows in 2020 - an additional number of cows bigger than the overall cows number in Europe,”​ Anton said.

“The IATP paper is just another example of ‘livestock bashing’ that fully – and intentionally - ignores the essential role of livestock and dairy in combatting the global climate crisis.”

Nestlé denies ‘minimal investment’

A Nestlé spokesperson told Dairy Reporter, “Our ambition is to halve our absolute emissions by 2030 compared to 2018 and achieve net-zero by 2050. We were one of the first companies to publicly share a detailed, time-bound climate Roadmap in December 2020.

“This ambition applies to the entire scope of our portfolio, not only to dairy and livestock emissions. In fact, the majority of Nestlé’s business is not related to dairy, given our diverse portfolio of foods and beverages from coffee, to confectionery, plant-based foods and beyond. By not reflecting this, the IATP report gives a misleading characterization of our climate roadmap by basing it on our actions related to dairy and livestock only.

“Regardless, we need to make progress across our businesses. For dairy and livestock specifically, we expect to reduce our absolute emissions by around 15% by 2030 versus 2018, even as our company grows. As an example of how this work is well underway already, just last week, we launched our first climate dairy farm in Germany.

“Nestlé colleagues are working with a family farm to help them reduce their footprint to net-zero emissions. Measures will include optimal feeding of the cows, gas-tight manure storage, construction of a biogas plant, and energy generation through photovoltaic systems. We plan to accelerate and replicate similar projects around the world, with pilots now taking place in South Africa, Brazil, the US and other countries.”

The spokesperson added that, earlier this year, the company announced plans to invest CHF 1.2bn ($1.3bn) over the next five years to help accelerate the transition to a regenerative food system.

“This is one of the most significant climate-related financial commitments in the food and beverage industry and is part of an overall plan by Nestlé to invest CHF 3.2bn ($3.47bn) over the next four years to reduce our emissions. What’s more, we do not believe this is a ‘minimal investment,’ as characterized by the IATP report.” 

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