“This presents the opportunity for U.S. dairy to be a solution that’s far more comprehensive than we are today,” says Barbara O’Brien, president and CEO of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Currently, U.S. dairy’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint is less than 2% of the nation’s total, but there is still room for improvement.
“We see the growing expectations of the world around us, customers, consumers, governments and others. We can be proactive and lead in this global discussion around climate impact,” O’Brien says.
Therefore, the industry agreed to a set of goals: to be carbon neutral or better, optimize water usage and improve water quality by 2050.
Focusing on the field and farm level, the Net Zero Initiative is an effort to accelerate research, innovation and scaling adoption of practices and technology across the four areas of the farm’s GHG footprint:
1. On-farm energy use and renewable energy generation
2. Feed production
3. Enteric emissions
4. Manure and nutrient management
In addition, there is a processor working group within the Innovation Center that is pursuing a separate plant initiative looking at their part of the dairy sector’s carbon footprint, specifically GHG emissions, water, waste and packaging.
“They have their own set of initiatives and priorities and are investing their time, energy and dollars there,” O’Brien says.
The Net Zero Initiative is an industry-wide effort and is led by six national dairy organizations: the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Newtrient and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
“These are great partner organizations that are pulling on the different strengths of each to move forward at an industry-wide level,” says Karen Scanlon, executive vice president, environmental stewardship for DMI and the Innovation Center.
As these new goals were being set, dairy producers were at the table to inform and help design the initiative.
“The co-ops who sat at the table were very supportive, but also were deliberate about their farmer memberships being aligned,” O’Brien says.
David Darr, senior vice president and chief strategy and sustainability officer at Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) adds, “When you look at farms across the country that are multigenerational and trying to build their business from different perspectives for the next generation, there’s a strong alignment there and essentially the foundation of DFA’s interest in this [initiative].
“At the same time, we recognize and believe that sustainability is good for our business. It’s good in how we promote and market dairy products to consumers here in the United States and around the world,” he continues.
The total industry collaboration represents more than 31,000 independent U.S. dairy farms and covers more than 15 million acres.
“The goals that were set are collective. We have a great group of partners involved in driving this forward in a focus on research and data, affordability and accessibility across the industry,” Scanlon says.
The baseline for these goals came from the first-ever life cycle assessment of a gallon of milk done in 2007. This assessment is a critical quantitative element, as the Innovation Center has committed to provide an industry progress report every five years.
A second life cycle assessment was conducted in 2017. In 10 years, the carbon footprint of producing 1 gallon of milk shrunk by 19%, requiring 30% less water and 21% less land.
This reinforced the environmental efforts made each day by dairy producers. “Generation to generation, farmers have become more efficient, have applied the best practices, the best animal care, and have reduced inputs and streamlined their operations,” Scanlon says.
Seeing that progress helped set the 30-year timetable for the goals. It also coincided with the timing goals of climate initiatives set by other sectors and governance organizations around the world.
“Everybody knew it needed to be a long runway, that there was a lot still to be learned between now and then,” O’Brien says. “We wanted to make sure we built in that 30-year opportunity – the opportunity to get smarter, through research, through piloting.”
Already, there is a six-year nationwide Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration project in conjunction with the initiative that received a $10 million grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research to answer specific questions around dairy crops.
Value chain customer Nestlé has made a commitment of funding and expertise to the initiative. One of its suppliers was selected as a pilot farm for new technologies and implementation of sustainable farming practices to demonstrate the economic viability of achieving net-zero emissions.
Late last year, Starbucks also announced an intent to support the initiative.
“It’s exciting that others see the value farmers bring to being a solution in this space,” O’Brien says. “We’re going to see more large-scale partnerships as well as regional pilots.”
Because sustainability has a critical economic aspect to it, a couple of the partner organizations – NMPF and Newtrient – are working on projects to bring capital to farmers to advance these efforts, as well as new market opportunities to help sustain these efforts long term.
“Not only do we want to close some of those research gaps, but we also want to find where there’s opportunity to turn these actions on the farm into an economic benefit,” Scanlon says. “We recognize those two things have to go hand in hand for us to achieve the scale we need as an industry to reach these goals and to really demonstrate dairy as a solution.”
As an industry-wide initiative, an objective is to offer a variety of actions and solutions that are as diverse as the dairy farms in the U.S.
“There’s no two farms alike. There’s no two solutions that are the same for every farm,” Scanlon says.
There is no expectation that every farm will be able to implement every solution possible.
“Some farms will reach net zero and can go beyond, and some farms are going to do what they can,” she says.
“We know that through the practices and technologies available today, what’s going to be developed through a focus on innovation and access to support and resources, that we’ll get to the scale needed across the country,” Scanlon adds.
Darr is already receiving a lot of phone calls from dairy producers wanting to know what they can do. “I think there is momentum across the dairy industry, including DFA members, to see how they can be part of the journey in a very positive and productive manner,” he says.
Many farmers are already doing a lot of good practices to reduce their environmental impact, from feeding a balanced ration to good manure management and good soil health practices to energy efficient light bulbs and variable-speed pumps.
Close to 2,000 dairies have already completed an environmental stewardship evaluation through the FARM Program to receive a comprehensive estimate of GHG emissions and energy use on their farm.
“At the core, sustainability focuses on trying to leave things in a better spot than when we received them,” Darr says. “I think that’s a lot of the approach to and values that our members and dairy farmers across the country have when they look at their operations.”
Scanlon adds, “We’re building on a legacy of farmer values that says we care for the land, we care for our animals and we care for our community. I think now we’re just entering into this global conversation to say, care for our community means our global community.”
This initiative sets out to demonstrate that dairy cannot only reduce its own impact at the farm level but can provide larger societal benefits through actions taken to reduce emissions, protect water quality and optimize water use.
At its core, the dairy industry has been known for its ability to improve health and wellness by providing nutritious food for people.
Now it is looking to provide clean air, clean water and renewable energy – all bolstered through the efforts of this initiative. “The potential is so much greater for dairy farmers to really be a solution,” O’Brien says.