You have probably heard the statistics that by 2017, U.S. milk production required 30% less water, 21% less land, and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.

That’s on top of the 90% reduction in land use, 65% reduction in water use, and 63% smaller carbon footprint the 2007 numbers represented compared to milk production in 1944.

There’s a reason those numbers are cited so often — they mark incredible improvements in environmental efficiency. But the future of this sustainability perspective is becoming more focused on looking forward than backward, said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson during a panel discussion at the recent Connect Summit.

“How do we meet these audacious goals? How do we push boundaries?” the animal science professor at Colorado State asked in regard to providing what consumers want from their food products.

Stackhouse-Lewis is also the director of AgNext at Colorado State, a research center working with members in all aspects of the livestock supply chain to move toward more sustainable solutions.

She emphasized that sustainability is a full system supported by three pillars:

• Environmental

• Social

• Economic

None is more important than another, she said, and moving forward with each is how progress is made.

Of course, animal agriculture has made great progress, and bringing those advancements to the table along with where we strive to continue to go is the next step in owning the conversation, said New Mexico dairy farmer Tara Vander Dussen. “We have to play offense, not just defense,” she said. Communicating where we’ve come from builds our platform for being trusted that we will continue to move forward.

Dairy, for example, leads the Net Zero Initiative (NZI) with the goal of being carbon neutral or better by 2050, optimizing water use, and improving water quality. Those can seem like lofty goals to share with the world, but the panel agreed that publicly-shared goals are a key component of making them a reality. In fact, it can be riskier not to have goals outlined, noted Fabian Bernal of DeLaval.

“Public goals allow us to be a collaborator in the space and not just let the conversation happen to us,” agreed David Darr, who heads up sustainability at Dairy Farmers of America. He also shared that in the example of NZI, when companies are willing to stand behind those goals, that helps create investment support for farmer projects.

At the end of the day, Vander Dussen reminded that it comes back to sharing with consumers what we do and why we do it. Though they may view sustainability as just the carbon footprint of a single food, farmers know there are many more pieces of the puzzle. That includes everything from by-product feeds to methane mitigation to water recycling. But in order to ensure those tools remain part of the industry’s toolbox to tackle sustainability, consumers have to be willing to accept them.

“If we make all the progress in the world and nobody understands it, it does us no good,” she summarized.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2021
October 18, 2021
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