This year marks the halfway point on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals‘ timeline, and many industries are racing to hit the benchmarks they’ve set.
One sector making early progress on shrinking its carbon footprint is part of your weekly grocery shop: the dairy industry. Although burning fossil fuels is the main human activity emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, livestock is also a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, the dairy sector contributes two percent of overall greenhouse emissions. Most of that is generated on farms by feed production, manure management, and methane emitted by cattle.
Although dairy alternatives are becoming more popular, the global demand for milk products remains high — total US dairy production and the percentage exported increased in 2020. But strong demand creates some big challenges when it comes to reducing environmental impact.
US Dairy Sets Net Zero Goals
According to the 2020 US Sustainability Report, the dairy industry has already nudged things in the right direction. Producing a gallon of milk in 2017 used 30 percent less water, 21 percent less land, and a 19 percent smaller carbon footprint compared to 2007. But the industry is pushing more aggressive goals. In 2020, the Innovation Center for US Dairy — a forum of farmers, cooperatives, retailers, and other stakeholders — announced the Net Zero Initiative, a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, optimize water usage, and improve water quality by 2050.
To support the Net Zero Initiative, Syngenta and The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Innovation Center for US Dairy to launch the Dairy Feed in Focus program. It aims to accelerate sustainability practices on farms through research, feed efficiency, and implementing new on-farm practices.
To learn more about the collaboration, InnoLead spoke to Liz Hunt, Head of Sustainable & Responsible Business at Syngenta, and Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, North America Agricultural Engagement Strategy Director at The Nature Conservancy.
Giving Farmers New Tools and Metrics
While $23 billion Syngenta is known for its crop protection products, the global agritech company also provides digital technologies and financial tools to farmers to help them optimize production and understand the economic and environmental impact of their supply chains.
“We want to provide actionable insights to farmers that can catalyze change,” said Liz Hunt, who has been with Syngenta since 2009.
As part of the Dairy Feed in Focus program, Syngenta is working alongside Wisconsin dairy farmers to improve the sustainability of crop production, which is turned into cattle feed. Syngenta is marketing its feed product, Enogen Feed corn, as a more efficient and profitable alternative to the typical corn hybrid feed, because it increases a dairy cow’s production. According to a study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, Enogen Feed leads to an increase in milk production while also decreasing the intensity of methane emissions, compared with the corn hybrid feed.
We want to provide actionable insights to farmers that can catalyze change.
Another technology Syngenta is using is a qualitative farm assessment tool to give farmers an overview of their present sustainability level. From there, Syngenta employs science-based tools and metrics to suggest practices and technologies the farmer could adopt (such as a buffer strip between fields to prevent runoff and improve soil health). Syngenta is piloting this tool through the Feed and Focus program, and aims to use it as a blueprint for replication in any dairy supply chain.
“Not every farmer is in the same place [on] this journey,” explained Hunt. “So we want to make sure we’re providing tools that meet them where they’re at. And that’s really the fundamental [strength] of this Feed and Focus project.”
Finding Partners with Shared Goals
After Syngenta recommends technologies or new practices to farmers, The Nature Conservancy steps in as project manager. The global environmental nonprofit works to ensure everyone — farmers, cooperatives, nutritionists, veterinarians, and dairy processors — are on the same page.
“That’s the beauty of [partnering] with different entities that all have the same goal,” said Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, who leads The Nature Conservancy’s agribusiness collaborations in North America.
“[Dairy farmers] can still focus on cow health and also think about, ‘Alright, well, if we choose that ration, how does that also impact the water quality leaving the farm?’ That’s really awesome.”
That’s the beauty of [partnering] with different entities that all have the same goal… [Dairy farmers] can still focus on cow health and also think about… water quality leaving the farm.
Vollmer-Sanders has been leading conservation projects at The Nature Conservancy for over a decade. Since she transitioned to farmer advisory work in 2016, she kept her eye on partnership possibilities with the Innovation Center for US Dairy and, more recently, Syngenta. She explained that all three organizations shared the same goal: to put the farmers front and center of efforts to improve water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Nature Conservancy helps farmers with tasks like inputting data and conducting cost-benefit analyses, as well as outreach to dairy farmers’ advisors. For example, its staff meet with nutritionists and veterinarians to discuss the impact of different feed rations on greenhouse gas emissions.
Challenges of Sustainability Programs
Because the Dairy Feed in Focus program is still in the data collection phase, there isn’t much information yet on improvements in feed efficiency or the overall environmental impact. The program is currently being implemented in Wisconsin. As farmers continue to adopt the technologies and input their data, the program partners will need to address several challenges before scaling and replicating the program across more farms and geographies.
One of the challenges of sustainability programs is that they often present only one solution with the expectation that it will be adopted by everyone.
One of the challenges of sustainability programs is that they often present only one solution with the expectation that it will be adopted by everyone, explained Hunt. “…The reality is there are a lot of opportunities that farmers can pursue to improve. And just because they’re not ready to jump into the deep end of the swimming pool, doesn’t mean that they can’t be part of the solution.”
The Dairy Feed in Focus program knows farmers must be part of the solution. That’s why it offers a menu of practices and technologies for the farmer to choose from, based on their current sustainability level and what is practically and economically feasible.
“Farmers are willing to try anything; they’re innovating faster than the scientific community can keep up with… And we need to just make sure that the economic value is there for them
Featured image courtesy of Syngenta