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A Land of Milk and Honey: Dairy's Place in the 21st Century Food System

  • Date: 09 December 2015
  • Author: Sandra Vijn, WWF; Chad Frahm, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy
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A place of great abundance is known as the “land of milk and honey.” And yet even in our world of increasingly constrained resources, demand for dairy is growing. Keeping the world’s most popular foods on supermarket shelves while safeguarding the planet isn’t impossible. It will just take hard work and innovation, much of which is already happening today.

The world needs to produce 70 percent more food to feed our growing population by 2050, with an expected 58% increase in demand for dairy. To meet these needs, climate-smart agriculture – the science and technology farmers need to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate – has taken a prominent role in the U.N. climate change conference, or COP21. In addition to an “Agriculture Action Day” there are multiple forums addressing land use, nutrition, resilience, soil health, food security, and the needs of farmers. While it is widely accepted that food and agricultural systems must increase production to feed the growing global population, we must do so in ways that optimize the use of scarce resources within the carrying capacity of the planet, that protect and enhance ecosystems, and that are resilient to the impacts of climate change.

In the dairy industry, that means adopting technology and sustainable business practices that improve efficiency, conserve resources and care for its cows, land and communities. A report recently published by World Wildlife Fund and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy identified numerous actions and opportunities, many of which are already underway, to enhance the dairy sector’s contribution to a more sustainable food system. Milk production affects the environment in various ways, and the dairy community continues to face its challenges and opportunities. For example, dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions and the poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources, while good manure management practices can promote soil health by returning vital nutrients to the land and can even produce electricity. In various areas around the world, dairy farming helps conserve native grasslands and the diverse life they support. In addition, manure—when managed properly—plays a valuable role in keeping soils fertile and healthy to grow crops.

The real challenge now lies in our ability to amplify efforts and accelerate adoption of effective solutions system-wide. We must work collaboratively throughout the dairy community to reduce environmental impacts across the entire value chain – from grass to glass – through the development of metrics, reporting guidelines, and promotion of best practices and opportunities for improved sustainability performances. It’s about working together and picking up the pace.

Although the dairy community has made progress in areas related to climate, energy, water, land use, waste and animal care, there is always room for improvement, since sustainability is a continuous journey. In collaboration with farmers, scientists, health professionals, academics and many others, we can continue to make strides in three particular areas:

  1. Identify new practices and technology to improve water conservation.
  2. Enhance understanding of the opportunities, barriers and tradeoffs of animal and crop genetics regarding the sustainable production of dairy.
  3. Further reduce waste and maximize resource recovery, reuse and recycling at all stages of the food chain.

One area in particular that we’re advancing is converting cow manure and food waste into natural fertilizer and renewable energy. Through the Biogas Roadmap, charted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy, we can reduce the amount of food waste entering our landfills and convert methane – a potent greenhouse gas emitted from rotting organic waste – into biogas, a renewable energy source. Within the U.S., there is potential to install an additional 11,000 biogas systems, which can produce energy to power more than 3 million homes.

There is a significant opportunity to accelerate learning and adoption of the U.S. dairy community’s efforts and innovations around the world. Impact could be scaled up if other agriculture sectors learned from and adopted relevant practices, too. Such efforts would advance significant environmental and social progress, and improve our ability to meet the food challenges of the 21st century.

Note: Since 2009, our two organizations, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, have engaged in a partnership based on a shared commitment to create a more environmentally sustainable dairy community.

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