This Portland-Based Company Wants to Make Your Milk Carbon Neutral
World leaders are gathered in Glasgow, Scotland this week for an everything-to-play-for summit on climate change. Among their very first actions was a pledge to reduce emissions from methane, a planet-warming greenhouse gas.
On three small, family-owned dairies in Oregon, that work is already well underway—enough that it has caught the attention of big-time investors, including Bill Gates and Mark Cuban.
The Portland-based company Neutral Milk (no connection to the indie American rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, sadly) last week formally announced a $4 million investment in the business, a round of funding led by Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and participated in by Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
The company’s flagship product—available at New Seasons, and, since last week, at Whole Foods locations nationwide—is unassuming quarts of plain old cow milk, not the oat milk or almond milk or soy milk sought out as vegan dairy alternatives. But each quart, the company says, is carbon neutral, via innovative emission reduction programs at the Oregon and Central Washington dairy farms with whom it works, plus the purchase of carbon offsets.
“You think about a Prius once every five years, but you think about milk every day,” says Neutral Milk CEO Marcus Lovell Smith. “So it’s an everyday decision. If we’re going to make the sort of progress we need to make in the next 20 years, we’re going to have to think about climate change a lot more.”
Cows are one of the world’s biggest contributors to methane emissions, and farmers and scientists the world over are experimenting with ways to reduce the cattle industry’s negative effects on the climate. In Oregon, Neutral Milk’s dairy farm partners are experimenting with changing the makeup of what cows eat while they graze, planting “sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and some clovers,” all of which contain tannins that can reduce methane production.
In addition, they are experimenting with new ways to manage cow manure disposal, making sure it is oxygenated, which means the release of less methane as well. And a tried-and-true method—planting more trees and other vegetation to help green the air—is also underway.
Lovell Smith says he’s aware of the risk of so-called greenwashing, where consumers don’t change their fundamental behaviors—choosing to go vegan, for example—but just comfort themselves that they’ve made a difference via their purchasing habits or by buying carbon offsets. He says, though, that companies like his have the realistic chance to meet consumers where they are.
“It’s the aggregate effect, the network effect of everybody doing these things that sort of pushes up the agenda,” he says.
To that end, Neutral Milk’s plan is eventually to move beyond its flagship product to butter, to sour cream and beyond. For now, expect their milk to be available in even more grocery stores in the next six months.
“We have aspirations, but there's so much to do in milk,” Lovell Smith says.