The Agropur Dairy Cooperative has declared itself ready to carry out an ambitious mission to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2031.
The Quebec-based dairy giant announced the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has approved its targets for lowering emissions from its facilities in Canada and the U.S. Achieving these objectives will involve extensive replacement of aging facilities and equipment to improve energy efficiency over the remainder of the decade.
The company also expects to lower methane emissions from dairy cows by exploring state-of-the-art soil and feed additives. Across its value chain, Agropur is committed to reducing GHG emissions by 24 per cent per kilogram of processed milk by 2031.
In gaining the approval of SBTi, Agropur has sent a message to the North American diary sector: it is following the most stringent of international norms to verify its path to carbon neutrality.
The company has also brought itself into alignment with a global agri-food sector that is increasingly following the SBTi methodology designed to prevent companies from engaging in greenwashing or similarly deceptive practices.
Agropur vice-president of corporate development and sustainable growth strategy Maxime Devourdy told SustainableBiz, "We have always been thinking green. So we are improving our operation on a daily basis and we have been doing that particularly with respect to reducing energy waste and relying on renewable sources at all our plants."
Commitment towards sustainability
Headquartered in Longueuil on the outskirts of Montreal, Agropur was founded in 1938 as a cooperative owned by a group of 87 farmers in the Granby region of Quebec. This year the company is celebrating its 85th anniversary and has evolved into a joint venture comprised of nearly 3,000 dairy farmers across Canada.
The company manages its U.S. operations from its head office in Appleton, Wisc., one of the country's leading dairy-producing states.
Agropur has given Devourdy the responsibility of turning the company into a leader in the dairy sector's drive towards sustainability. It has also forged links with North America's other leading dairy producers as part of an industry-wide initiative to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Devourdy said Agropur wants to "add visibility to our strategic GHG reduction targets and make sure that we're working on the right things," via a 10-year investment plan. The plan will invest in new technology, facilities and equipment, and exploring new soil and feed additives.
"We are responding to growing societal and consumer awareness with respect to sustainability and the very high targets that our strategic customers have been setting," Devourdy continued.
"That is why we decided to follow the SBTi target initiatives that came out of the Paris Accords. This is the proven way of calculating your baseline emissions and we have spent the last 18 months gathering the necessary data which enabled us to gain SBTi approval for our strategic emissions reductions targets."
Devourdy explained he was determined from the outset to make sustainability a core element of Agropur's long-term strategic mission.
"I didn't want to create something on the side that would be called sustainability," he explained. "I wanted sustainability to be embedded in our business model and with our strategy of how we move forward in the future."
Agropur then put a governance process in place for Devourdy to lead the program in Canada. "That means you need to work with the leaders in the (GHG reduction initiatives) to not only make our operations accountable, but to also deliver on those targets," he said.
How Agropur is decarbonizing
To this end, in 2017 Agropur began replacing outdated fluorescent and HID lights with advanced LED lighting systems in its U.S. plants. This has resulted in a net energy saving of five million kilowatt-hours per year.
Over the course of the decade, the company will also invest heavily in retrofitting and replacing aging equipment at its plants.
"We are engaged in reducing our power consumption every year," Devourdy said, noting how the company's 10-year plan will replace assets that may be 30 to 40 years old.
"We're also thinking about PPAs (power purchase agreements). We know that the grid is going to become cleaner in the future, but you need to lock up some capacity right away in those projects that will be coming online in the regions that we are operating in."
In addition, Agropur has embraced the circular economy concept by implementing responsible packaging guidelines. It developed 100 per cent recyclable packaging for the OKA cheese line that requires 53 per cent less raw material.
Food packaging takes up the highest percentage of municipal solid waste streams after organic waste. Given the large quantity of milk products consumed in Canada, Agropur hopes to provide leadership in this field.
Agropur researching new tech to offset dairy cow methane
According to a 2022 study by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock account for 11.1 per cent of global GHG emissions.
Fermentation from the digestive process of cattle and sheep produces methane that contributes to global warming; 90 per cent of which is the result of belching, the rest emanating from digestive gas rising into the atmosphere.
Dairy farms contribute the bulk of GHGs over the life cycle of milk and other dairy processes, with 72 per cent released prior to the milk leaving the farm.
A principal means of combatting dairy cow methane generation involves dietary modification. Agropur is collecting data to assess the impact of advanced new feed additives to lower methane emissions.
"Feed additive (modification) is a very promising technology right now and we are looking into it," Devourdy said. "We are also working with a customer in the U.S. to implement new dietary practices at one of our major dairy farm suppliers which . . . could have the biggest impact in the short term."
An issue Agropur faces is that its customers are still collecting data to assess the long-term effect of this technology.
If it were to be implemented at the farm level, it would only calculate GHG reductions for one year, Devourdy said. Subsequently, the effects on dairy cows may be negligible "once they get used to it, so you may not be able to see a reduction for a second year in a row.
"So they're looking at this to evaluate the long-term impact and to determine how effective the overall reduction in emissions will be. Right now we don't know."
In the interim, Agropur is working with one of its primary U.S. suppliers on modifying the soil that provides grazing feed for dairy cows in hopes of reducing GHG emissions from belching and gas.
"We want to make sure that we're investing in the right technology that's going to be there for the long term for our producers and customers. If it proves to be effective it gets us started on this journey . . . It's coming faster than expected and we want to do it."