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Dear Starbucks: Keep the cream
Stephen Weststeyn
Stephen Weststeyn is a third generation California dairy farmer (Linden, California).

As far back as the 1600s, milk and coffee have coexisted together in a wonderful, blissful relationship. Milk or cream rounds out the bitterness from coffee to give it a smooth enhanced flavor; it’s the perfect yin and yang relationship with two seemly opposite beverages coming together to complement each other for pure perfection.

Yet, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson recently announced that the company would be pushing plant juices for their coffee drinks and roll back the use of dairy in an effort to make their company more environmentally friendly. There are many reasons why Starbucks would want to replace dairy. Plant milks are less prone to spoilage and thus would streamline their supply chain. Milk sold to Starbucks usually comes from your local area.

Whatever the real reason, the claim that cutting out milk will improve sustainability is nonsense. A lot of misinformation has been spread by pop documentaries, like Cowspiracy, with claims that are vastly out of line with the actual environmental impact of the dairy industry. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that dairy contributes only 2 percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., with plant agriculture contributing 4.8 percent and the bulk of emissions coming from power production and transportation.

Over the past few decades, U.S. dairy farmers have been able to reduce their environmental impact by 60 percent; and dairy farmers continue to strive to be leaders in sustainability. Even while doubling milk production, the number of dairy cows in the U.S. has decreased from 25.6 million cows in 1950 to only 9.4 million today. Doing more with less is a philosophy that has enabled dairy farmers to reduce their environmental “hoofprint” and drive real change in the industry and environment.

Cows are part of the world’s ecological system and dairy farmers have harnessed this biological advantage. The “waste” that cows create is necessary for good soil health. Healthy soil holds more water and provides a richer life for the microbial life of the soil. The manure goes back onto the soil to regrow the grass and other crops that cows eat. The planet needs cows as much as cows need the planet

It should be noted that the methane cows emit stays in the atmosphere for about six years; this means in every year that new methane molecules are added, they’re offset by the expiration of molecules produced in years prior. As long as the number of cows doesn’t drastically increase, this cycle has a net-neutral effect. By contrast, emissions from cars last in the atmosphere over 100 years. So, every car idling at a Starbucks drive-though is adding emissions that will last for a century.

Most people would be fascinated to know that dairy is helping solve that problem too. The most innovative and exciting things dairy farmers are doing is implementing methane digester technology to capture methane and convert it into gas or electricity. Cows can literally become a renewable power source. Dairy biogas is considered a carbon-negative fuel because its capture and reuse results in a greater greenhouse gas reduction than CO2.

Dairy-derived biogas is the greenest, most carbon-negative fuel source. According to the California Air Resources Board, biogas from dairy manure can result in a 400-percent reduction in GHG emissions when replacing traditional vehicle fuels such as diesel. What would dairies’ contribution be to GHG emissions be if every farm was able to implement this technology?

Switching to plant-based beverages will not make Starbucks greener. It’s been estimated that a lifetime of eating a plant-based diet will only remove .82 tonnes of CO2 per year- the equivalent of avoiding one transatlantic flight or switching to an electric car. Not to mention the health consequences of removing a powerful, bioactive nutrient source.

Instead of breaking up with milk, Starbucks should look for opportunities to work with dairy farmers to drive positive change faster. Dairy is one of the most localized ingredients in a Starbucks store. The company should work with America’s family dairy farmers instead of giving them the boot. Eliminating dairy will not make the world greener, it will just make our coffee taste worse.

— Stephen Weststeyn is a third generation California dairy farmer (Linden, California).