Dairy summit meeting focuses on sustainability


Issue Date: December 5, 2018
By Ching Lee

They already lead the nation in milk production, and now California dairy farmers want to be known for being world leaders in sustainable farming.

At the California Dairy Sustainability Summit in Sacramento last week, they discussed the progress they have made in areas of efficiency, conservation, animal health and sustainable business practices. During breakout sessions, they also explored ways to continue improving environmental stewardship, developing new business opportunities and reducing on-farm costs.

The two-day event attracted more than 600 people, including about 200 dairy farmers, more than 75 speakers and other stakeholders, according to event organizers.

Emphasizing the state's commitment to helping dairy farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, highlighted the millions of dollars the state has invested in helping to fund methane-reducing projects, including 63 dairy digesters since 2015. The projects are funded through competitive grants administered by CDFA.

Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, reviewed his long-term research debunking claims that livestock production is responsible for more than 18 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions globally—levels higher than the transportation industry.

He said he takes issue with organizations that attack animal agriculture based on "faulty numbers" and claims not based on science. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which he said are more accurate, he noted that U.S. livestock production accounts for about 4 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

He further noted the progress that has been made in U.S. animal agriculture during the last 60-plus years to reduce its environmental footprint through better productivity and advances in animal genetics, nutrition, and animal care and health. For example, there are now 16 million fewer dairy cows in the U.S. than there were in 1950, though milk production has increased 60 percent.

"The carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds smaller today than it was 70 years ago," he said.

During a panel discussion on dairy consumption trends, retail markets and rising consumer interest in the environmental impacts of their food choices, John Talbot, CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board, pointed out that despite years of waning fluid milk consumption, people today are eating more dairy products. People are also much more aware of the foods they buy, he added, favoring companies and brands they believe are more environmentally friendly. He listed Walmart as among the companies that have made strides in lowering their environmental impact, saying "we have to work with players like Walmart" because of the "hyper-competitiveness" in the market.

As McDonald's chief sustainability officer for 27 years, Bob Langert, who's retired and now writes a regular column for the GreenBiz Group in Oakland, said the fast-food chain spent more than 20 years being "defensive" about its practices and packaging, which he said came to symbolize waste and a disposable society. He said he views agriculture as still being on the defensive, and encouraged dairy farmers not to let activists and others define who they are and what they do.

"What we're not doing a better job of is telling great stories," said Alex Palczek, director of marketing for Nestle.

Palczek stressed the importance of dairy farmers "having a story people really believe in," but to make the story simple so that it could be told repeatedly in different ways—and to make sure the story reaches people by way of those who do sales for the companies that market the milk.

"If we don't tell that story, somebody else will," said David Ahlem, CEO of Hilmar Cheese Co.

Not only do farmers need to simplify their stories, but they need to tell stories through an "emotional lens," said Linda Eatherton, managing director of global food and beverage for Ketchum, a public relations firm in New York. That means "start with the heart," and work with how people feel, she said, adding that the definition of sustainability changes constantly, and those in the dairy business need to "move with it" as the conversation changes.

Because people in agriculture tend to be older, Palczek encouraged farmers to talk to younger people, many of whom may not be very well informed about farming, he said, adding that farmers should seek to understand how younger people view agriculture and the food choices they make.

As discussions about climate change shift to include the impact of animal agriculture, those who work in nutrition shared their thoughts on dairy's role in a healthy and sustainable diet, as people try to balance their nutritional needs with their desire for more sustainable food production.

Marianne Smith Edge of The AgriNutrition Edge looked at the tradeoffs of milk consumption, showing that the nutritional and health benefits of drinking milk outweigh impacts to the environment.

People are split on whether they would pay more for food that's sustainably produced, she said, with 38 percent saying yes, 28 percent saying no and 34 percent saying they're not sure.

In discussing how to advance environmental protections while ensuring the sustainability of the state's dairies, a panel consisting of regulators and a conservation group agreed that a voluntary, incentive-based approach has been key to helping farmers meet the state's air and water quality requirements.

Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, said there's much more power in "having an environmental organization partner with the industry to come together on things where there's common ground, because if we can agree on those things, we can get others to support them as well."

As executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, Samir Sheikh said he's constantly being reminded of all the regulatory burdens dairy farmers already face. Moving forward, he emphasized the importance of making available incentive programs to provide the resources farmers need to implement new, cutting-edge and expensive technologies that would help them tackle air-quality challenges.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.