Global efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon and slowly rising temperatures through government, customer, and consumer intervention are putting the squeeze on carbon emissions from all sectors — including dairy. Regardless of anyone’s opinion as to why global warming is occurring, the fact is that consumers value sustainability as a positive product attribute. Fortunately, U.S. dairy farmers have a great story to share. One key fact: The environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in the U.S. in 2017 required 30% less water, 21% less land, and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007. That’s the progress consumers want to see.
Rising to this challenge toward greater sustainability, last year the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy established U.S. dairy’s collective 2050 Sustainability Goals to become carbon neutral or better; to optimize water use while maximizing recycling; and to improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients.
U.S. dairy’s current progress and 2050 goals are increasingly important in the international arena, as more than 15% of our milk production is now exported. U.S. dairy products must not only compete on price, safety, and nutrition but increasingly on sustainability. Our global competitors in Europe and Oceania, as well as our customers, have embarked on their own sustainability journeys and are using sustainability as a marketing differentiation. Arla, Friesland Campina, Nestlé, and Danone all have goals to be carbon net-zero by 2050. Walmart plans to reach that milestone a decade before them. And they are far from alone in these goals.
An international bias is forming
Agricultural sustainability is also becoming a greater focus in multilateral discussions, such as this year’s United Nations’ Food Systems Summit that’s been billed as an effort to “radically reform” the human diet and the way the world farms and produces food. Unfortunately, part of that radical reformation appears to be biased against livestock production — specifically, U.S. agricultural-scale production. The U.S. dairy industry is collaborating across our checkoff, export, and cooperative organizations to tell dairy’s true story and advocate for U.S. dairy farmer interests in the summit through numerous channels.
Part of that effort is the FARM Environmental Stewardship platform. Launched in 2017, FARM ES quantifies a farm’s current environmental footprint — focusing on greenhouse gas emissions and energy – and supports farmers with a suite of tools and resources to enable improvements over time. Dairy cooperatives and processors can aggregate that information to share farmers’ stories with supply chain customers and consumers. As of the end of 2020, organizations representing almost 80% of the domestic milk supply have enrolled in FARM Environmental Stewardship.
The drive to Net Zero
The Net Zero Initiative, which has also been highlighted as part of the summit effort, is the U.S. dairy industry’s pathway toward reaching our collective 2050 sustainability goals. Launched last year, Net Zero is an industry-wide effort to accelerate voluntary action on farms to reduce environmental impacts by making sustainable practices and technologies more accessible and affordable to U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies. This is achievable through research, on-farm pilots, development of manure-based products and ecosystem markets, and other farmer technical support and opportunities.
Finally, NMPF is leveraging regulatory and legislative opportunities to improve dairy farmer access to technical and financial resources as well as voluntary ecosystem services trading markets to enhance affordability and revenue opportunities on this journey. These efforts include comments to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) practice standards to meet real-world dairy farm needs; meeting with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to streamline regulatory approval of feed additives, which may reduce enteric methane; and working through coalitions like the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance to advocate for legislation to make access to voluntary ecosystem service markets easier.
From everyday environmental achievements on the farm to industry-wide goals and initiatives, U.S. dairy is demonstrating global leadership. Our industry’s coordinated efforts help dairy farmers to sustainably produce nutrient-dense foods that feed families at home and worldwide while showcasing U.S. dairy as an environmental solution — an important message in a competitive landscape that increasingly values sustainability.