Sustainability conjures numerous thoughts in people's minds. And rightly so. Just how efficient, long-lasting and repeatable a process can be will determine whether it is a sink or swim proposition. While businesses around the globe are scrambling to document sustainable processes from the field to plate, the simple fact remains that our society does a terrible job ensuring food even gets into a human mouth.

Some estimate that as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is lost at some point in the system. That is simply tragic in a world where so many go to bed hungry. While all can do better, dairy has at least been part of the solution.

Not only has the dairy community documented how efficiently it has produced high-quality protein over the years, the heifers and cows found on our dairies are among nature's most efficient manufacturers and recyclers due to the dynamics of the rumen. Thanks to the total mixed ration (TMR), we can deliver a blended diet making use of discarded human-grade food and other byproducts from ethanol production, for example.

We also aid the sustainability cause through bioenergy. Although digester projects have struggled to some degree, dairy farms have more digesters than any other sector. These bioenergy plants also make use of food we cannot recycle by feeding it to animals. In using digesters, we not only reap energy but plant nutrients that are returned to the soil to grow future crops.

While retailers continue to evaluate how well food moves from farm to consumer and vegan groups attempt to label crop-based foods as more sustainable than those from animals, we must remain aware that dairy cows are part of the planet's sustainable long-term food solution. Not only do cows recycle the food we waste, these ruminants digest forage nutrients not available to humans. Until our society gets a handle on this food waste situation, dairy's contribution is much more sustainable than a landfill.

This editorial appears on page 338 of the May 10, 2015 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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