Last week, we witnessed the dairy industry hold their first ever Sustainability Summit for U.S. Dairy. The week long conference culminated in the announcement of an industry-wide commitment and action plan to reduce milk’s “carbon footprint” while simultaneously increasing business value (translation: profit) from farm to consumer. But how truly “green” are their efforts?
Sustainability — ah, it sounds so good doesn’t it? In recent years it has become the buzz word among businesses. Most large corporations have sustainability officers and are taking huge strides to become “greener.” In part, these initiatives are driven by consumer and public demand for better accountability, social and environmental justice and healthier products. Last week, we witnessed the dairy industry jump on the bandwagon when they held their first ever Sustainability Summit for U.S. Dairy. The week long conference culminated in the announcement of an industry-wide commitment and action plan to reduce milk’s “carbon footprint” while simultaneously increasing business value from farm to consumer.
I am timidly optimistic. Conventional dairy production worldwide is an incredibly energy intensive system that relies on chemicals, hormones, and feed crops grown with pesticides and fertilizers. It is estimated that dairy production contributes almost 155 billion pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere per year — the equivalent of more than 14 million cars. With such a massive carbon impact, I am relieved to see the dairy industry finally recognize the need to reduce its impact on global warming. Among key actions are a variety of efforts to reduce energy use and thus emissions and costs. If these ideas are put into real action, dairy’s efforts should be applauded as a step in the right direction. Yet, they seem to be missing the bigger picture.
You can’t help notice that these action initiatives appear to be driven by economic incentives with emission reductions taking a backseat. Perhaps, in these times of continually rising fuel prices, the dairy industry is starting to realize just how unsustainable their methods truly are. Fortunately, the industry can achieve both a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and an increase in profits — not through any far-fetched technologies to increase production, but by returning to the more natural organic systems that consumers are increasingly demanding.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that organic dairy production produces between one-half to one-third fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and uses about 30 percent less energy than conventional dairy production. Reduced energy costs help offset the price of methane digesters for manure, which could then provide long-term energy production for on-farm power needs.
With organic milk — one of the most commonly purchased organic products — there is also a financial incentive. Despite increasing food prices, demand for organic products continues to rise. Since organic dairy producers are paid a premium for their products, organic dairy puts more money in farmers’ pockets.
To me it seems like a win-win situation, so I am perplexed as to why the dairy industry’s action initiatives don’t include any transitions to organic production systems. I have hope that the dairy industry may catch up, but I’m not willing to wait. You can reduce your own greenhouse-gas emissions by purchasing organic, grass-fed, and local milk, cheeses, and dairy products to reduce your carbon footprint and help support community farmers. Check out the Cool Foods Campaign website for additional ways to reduce your own FoodPrint.
Get Grist in your inbox