Imagine this pastoral scene: a cow grazing in a lush pasture, with her calf nursing alongside. What could be greener?
But there's a sustainability snake in that grass, relating to the things dairy cattle do other than making milk. Inside that wonderful natural factory that turns grass into milk and meat protein is an active digestive system that produces oodles of methane — a potent greenhouse gas.
By some estimates methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than is carbon dioxide, the current gas non grata. And while there are other natural sources of methane, including melting Arctic bogs, any dairy operation worth its sustainability salt has to take the issue seriously, which is what Fonterra, the largest co-operative in New Zealand, is doing.
"Most of the methane comes from the front end of the cow, " said Michael Levine, senior category development manager for organics and sustainability at Fonterra, which is also a leading producer of milk-derived ingredients.
"I've been impressed with the dairy industry," said Levine, who came to Fonterra after a 20-year career in the US food business. "They've taken the problem head on. You're not going to change the physiological structure of the animal, so you have to look at the feed."
Fonterra, which is expanding its operations in the US, is a key part of an industry-government co-operative programme in New Zealand seeking ways to limit the methane production of cattle that includes feed experimentation, research into the biochemistry of digestion and examination of dairy-cattle genetics.
As part of its sustainability initiative, Fonterra conducted a carbon-footprint audit of its operations.
"We found that 85 per cent of the carbon footprint came from on-farm activities. And the majority of that came from the cow itself," Levine said.
But Fonterra's commitment to sustainability doesn't stop at the front end of the cow; it's woven into the firm's culture.
"The term 'clean & green' permeates the New Zealand culture," Levine said. "We're in the natural-resource business. Our future is tied to the continuing success in nurturing those natural resources."
Fonterra works with its farmers to reduce energy usage as well as to keep the waterways that border their farms clean.
It's all part of doing things the right way, the sustainable way, that attracted Levine to the company in the first place. Prior to working at Fonterra, Levine was with Organic Valley, an organic dairy based in LaFarge, Wisconsin. But most of his career in the food business was spent in the processed-foods segment, an experience that led him to a sobering conclusion. "Most of the food we were making was not in our best interest," he said.
For more on sustainable practices, see 'Banking on Green.'