Starbucks sign image via Wikipedia user 4028mdk09

published on January 24, 2020 - 2:56 PM
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A statement from Starbucks leadership following the release of the coffee giant’s environmental impact report has some farm and dairy advocates wondering what effect a purported desire to move toward milk alternatives will have on the troubled industry.

On Tuesday, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson released the company’s “sustainability commitment” on its website outlining five goals to reduce its carbon footprint by 2030. From reducing single-use packaging to more responsible water usage, Johnson also included a commitment to expand plant-based options, “migrating toward a more environmental friendly menu,” he wrote.

“Alternative milks will be a big part of the solution,” Johnson said in a separate interview with Bloomberg News. “The consumer-demand curve is already shifting.”

The interview, which came on the heels of the sustainability commitment, has many speculating on how far that may go.

Breathless headlines such as “Starbucks plans to hold the milk,” from to “Starbucks to push customers to ditch dairy for alternative milk as it moves to cut carbon footprint” from Financial Post demonstrated some of the conclusions drawn by the statement.

The Business Journal was not alone in sending unanswered media requests to Starbucks to clarify what “the solution” Johnson proposed would be.

Johnson released its plan after an audit by the World Wildlife Fund and Swiss-based environmental consulting company Quantis found 21% of the company’s carbon footprint comes from dairy alone. Dairy also makes up 15% of its global water footprint across its 31,000 stores worldwide.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of Starbucks in 2021, we look ahead with a heightened sense of urgency and conviction that we must challenge ourselves, think bigger and do much more in partnership with others to take care of the planet we share,” wrote Johnson. “Today, I’m excited to be able to share with you our commitment to pursue a bold, multi-decade aspiration to become resource positive and give more than we take from the planet.”

“I think, quite simply, he’s ignorant of the facts. There’s no other way to put it,” Tom Barcellos, who operates two dairies in the Tipton and Porterville areas, said of the Starbucks CEO’s reported statement.

“He wants to — we’ll call it ‘save the planet,’ whatever — but milk has a smaller carbon footprint than a lot of the plant alternatives,” he added, considering the energy that goes into harvesting and processing the nuts or oats, as well as additives.

Tulare County alone is the top milk-producing county in the U.S., and the neighboring counties are close behind.

Individual products and major store chains can have significant effects on the dairy industry, which is why during the Great Recession, the industry worked with Dominos Pizza to set special pricing on double-cheese pizzas, not only to get the chain to use more cheese but also to promote pizza sales in general, as pizza makers are major users of cheese.

The reported plans for Starbucks comes as the dairy industry is taking it on the chin from the milk alternatives industry, which heavily promotes that almond milk, soy milk, etc. are healthier than cow’s milk.

It’s a one-sided fight, because the dairy industry can’t fight back through its own marketing, said Gary Genske, who owns a dairy in New Mexico and is treasurer and a member of the board of directors for the Costa Mesa-based National Dairy Producers Organization, Inc.

He also is a partner in a certified public accounting firm that represents dairies that generate nearly a quarter of the milk produced in California and dairies in 33 states that produce about 15% of milk produced nationally.

Genske explained that U.S. dairies and “dairy handlers” that manufacture dairy products are required to provide portions of their proceeds to a quasi-governmental program to promote dairy products, but that program is prohibited from putting down the quality and challenging the health claims of alternative milk products.

“So all these other milk products coming onto the market saying, ‘You know what? We don’t have the fat that milk has, so we’re better.’ You know what, the fat that’s in milk is necessary to grow up on, and that fact isn’t made known,” Genske said.

Another blow to the dairy industry is the alternatives using “milk” in their names — almond milk, walnut milk, etc. — when, in fact, the only thing they have in common with real milk is appearance, added Ed Bortje, a third-generation dairyman operating a dairy north of Visalia.

“There is no such thing as almond milk or soy milk, as ‘milk’ comes from cows and other animals with mammary systems. The only reason they call it ‘milk’ is it sounds healthy,” Bortje said.

“They make it to look like milk, but it’s not milk. And if they look at all the ingredients that go into that stuff, they’ll know it’s much unhealthier for them than milk from a cow,” he added.

As for Johnson’s claims that the dairy industry leaves too big a carbon footprint, Bortje noted that U.S.–produced milk generates a much smaller carbon footprint than milk from other countries, noting that cows here can produce about 10 times more milk than those in India.

“If they’re worried about carbon footprints, maybe they should go there to teach people how to handle dairy cattle, not telling people to [drink] something that is less healthy for them than whole milk.”

One of the major claims against dairies is the amount of methane gas passed by cows into the atmosphere, to which Genske noted there are only about 9 million dairy cows in the U.S. and about 325 million people who generate much more methane.

On the dairy side, there are efforts across the country to use mechanical digesters that can be fed dairy cow feces and remove the methane, using it to power buildings and machinery, he said.

As for the potential effects of Starbucks dissuading its clientele from ordering milk products in their coffee drinks, Barcellos said he’s not concerned, as he believes there may be a knee-jerk reaction among some Starbucks customers to go dairy free in their orders, but most people who now want milk in their coffee likely would switch back.

“I think they’re better educated as to why they’re still drinking milk, as opposed to following the fads and misinformation and switching over to plant-based alternatives.”

He added that some may end up questioning Johnson’s claims, and once they get the information on their own, “I believe they’ll stay where they’re at.”

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