The future of dairy sustainability: Communications, partnerships and progress

CMAB
The California dairy industry is a model of sustainable productivity, responding to environmental challenges while being on track for a 40-percent methane emission reduction by 2030.

This article is sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board.

It is an exciting time to bear witness to the changes and innovations within California’s dairy industry. As CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), I am gratified that our industry — producers and processors in concert with regulators and retailers — has taken a thoughtful response to the environmental challenges we all face. These environmentally focused innovations are playing a larger role in supporting the CMAB’s mission of building global demand for California dairy products.

Just last year, we came together as an industry for the inaugural California Dairy Sustainability Summit, where dairy producers, regulatory bodies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had open, honest conversations about the current and future opportunities and challenges facing the dairy industry. Overall, we are taking a pragmatic and realistic approach to the tough tasks at hand. For us, environmental sustainability means always promoting responsible use and reuse of water and land, reducing emissions into the air and ensuring cow comfort and nutritious products.

The U.S. dairy industry — and California in particular — has a great deal to be proud of. We are in many ways setting the example for the global dairy industry in our response to broad environmental demands. Factual, scientific proof backs up our achievements:

  • U.S. and California dairies produce more milk, using fewer resources. Annual production per American cow is 23,000 pounds of milk. This is equivalent to the production from five cows in Mexico or 30 cows in India. The global dairy industry has looked to California as a productivity model.
  • With 16 million fewer cows today (1950 to 2018), milk production nationally has increased 60 percent.
  • The carbon footprint of a glass of U.S. milk is more than 60 percent smaller today than it was 75 years ago — lowest of any country in the world.
  • The installation of methane digesters and alternative manure-management projects demonstrate that California dairy farms are already on track to achieve a 40-percent reduction in manure methane emissions by 2030. It is anticipated that up to 120 dairy digesters will be operating in the state within five years.
  • A growing number of dairy farms are reducing the use of fossil fuels by converting diesel-powered equipment to electric. Conversions made by individual farms can eliminate up to 20 tons of smog-forming emissions per year, the equivalent to the emissions of 7,800 cars.

These achievements don’t mean much without sharing these accomplishments and collaborating with our partners to ensure sustainable supply chains. Cross-functional partnerships are imperative in helping reassure consumer-facing brands that they can rely on their supply chains to meet their own sustainability commitments. 

An example of this is Walmart — an organization driving sustainable transparency for itself and its suppliers through its Project Gigaton initiative. Walmart has one of the broadest reaches direct to consumers — a consumer that is setting ever higher sustainability expectations. The California dairy industry is and wants to remain one of Walmart’s biggest suppliers. For that reason alone, we need to take its approach seriously and work towards alignment with its guidelines. It’s smart business, and it’s the right thing to do for our planet.

What’s also instructive is that the Walmart example has deeper value to the dairy industry as well. Rather than taking a piecemeal approach to sustainability, Walmart combines many initiatives to reach its goals — from waste to energy to packaging and even ingredients. By doing this, it is building a broad performance base to improve its environmental impact, remain economically viable as a company and still deliver great value to its consumer. As a respected driver of aggressive sustainability practices, Walmart has used its influence and voice to help both the channel and the consumer understand the economic and environmental impact of its initiatives.

Dairy, especially dairy in California, has a great opportunity to use this Walmart model not only to make a considerable environmental impact, but also to use communications and engagement to change consumer and activist perceptions of the industry. Collectively, California dairy can use its voice to demonstrate its commitment, showcase its accomplishments and take a leadership role in the agriculture and food industries.

To this end, the California Dairy Sustainability Summit highlighted the commitment of the state’s dairy industry to realistic, programmatic and operational changes, and a dedication to:

  • Showcasing our track record and our path of continuous improvement.
  • Making full use of existing science, measured statistics and credible independent third-party endorsement to build credibility for our positions.
  • Demonstrating leadership by articulating our commitment, goals, progress — along with a recognition that we have many more steps to take.
  • Committing to genuine transparency about our ongoing challenges and our successes.
  • Opening our doors to show what we do, how we do it, how we care and how we can still improve — to regulators, retailers and consumers.

With genuine transparency, the dairy industry is working to communicate between dairy farms, government officials, regulators, NGOs, producers and processors. We are realists. The industry as a whole recognizes the extreme financial and environmental challenges facing California dairy producers and agree that "sustainability" also must include economic viability. By working together and embracing new approaches and partnerships, the dairy industry can be successful. We need to challenge ourselves as individuals, as organizations and as a singular industry to foster vastly improved awareness, understanding and appreciation from consumers in the state, across the country and around the world. 

Our planet is facing a critical juncture for the environment and we as an industry are working collaboratively to address this challenge. Together, progress has a far better chance for success than ever before.