Dairy’s Sustainable Past Sets Us Up For Sustainable Future by: Krysta Harden


Companies and industries are grabbing their share of headlines for announcing commitments to sustainable food production. These public promises come with the full support of stakeholders, investors and the people who enjoy their products. They know that in order to remain viable, it is critical to prove they are doing the right thing in all phases of their production line, beginning at the farm.

Dairy, thankfully, isn’t late to the game.

Earlier this year, we announced U.S. dairy’s 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals. Our announcement was necessarily subdued given the COVID-19 crisis the world continues to navigate.

With pockets of the country finding their way back to normalcy, we know it is important for U.S. dairy to continue the course that began generations ago. The collective, industrywide goals were set through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and focus on three core elements:

  • Become carbon neutral or better
  • Optimize water use while maximizing recycling
  • Improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients

We have built a foundation for this moment. Of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the dairy industry – from feed production to post-consumer waste – contributes only 2%. On the farm, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly from 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint.

Dairy farmers’ values, progress and long-standing commitments are the reason we can set aggressive goals and take a place of leadership in producing a nutrient-dense food in a way that is good for the planet.

I have walked dairy farms and every step reveals another example of farmers’ dedication and progress on this journey. Many have implemented reduced tillage and cover crops to improve soil; optimized feed rations and managed manure storage to increase efficiency and reduce emissions; installed LED lighting to increase energy efficiency and installed digesters to generate renewable energy. They’ve recycled water to maximize efficiency and improved their nutrient and manure management to improve water quality.

This responsible care of the land and water began with the family members who preceded today’s generation of farmers. And they are doing their part to pass it on to those who will follow them.

The environmental stewardship goals serve as our North Star, and our public declaration allows us to bring more people to the table to help farmers with additional resources that can unlock new opportunities.

We received a monumental boost when Nestlé made up to a $10 million commitment as part of a multi-year partnership with U.S. dairy that builds upon our foundational strength and accelerates opportunities through the Net Zero Initiative (NZI). This is just the start!

NZI is the pathway

NZI is an on-farm strategy and a way to prove out many of the assumptions we have about responsible milk production. NZI is key to helping the industry continue its progress toward on-farm greenhouse gas emissions reductions and significant improvements in water through research, on-farm pilots and development of markets, such as manure-based products. NZI leverages new technologies and practices in feed production, cow care, energy efficiency, renewable energy and manure management to find economically viable solutions for farms of all sizes.

It’s an important pathway for delivering more tools, equipment, expertise and resources to help farmers. It will open partnership opportunities and financial support to make it happen. We know this work can’t be done solely off the backs of farmers.

NZI is not regulation and it is not being imposed on farmers. It’s designed to support all size farms and to elevate dairy as an environmental solution. The agenda is ours to create, and it truly is a “grassroots up” movement that builds upon and gives credit for what farmers already may be doing to drive toward the goals.

Our ask isn’t that everybody does everything. But we fully believe that every farmer – regardless of size or geography – can and probably already is doing something that contributes to progress and will help our industry reach these goals. NZI can help every farmer find the next best choice for sustainability on their farm.

Farmers aren’t on this journey alone. In addition to Nestlé, efforts are underway through the Innovation Center’s Processor Working Group. Comprised of more than 50 participants representing over 30 processing organizations, this group is engaged in facility-focused workstreams for waste, water, packaging and GHG emissions to drive action and demonstrate progress toward the goals.

Ultimately, we want NZI to deliver monetized benefits beyond what farmers earn for their milk. Our eye is always focused on not just what farmers can do for sustainability but what sustainability can do for farmers. Make no mistake that we fully believe sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand. These goals never would have been put in place if there weren’t opportunities for a financial benefit.

As we continue forward, please remember this is a journey, not a destination. Our goals are ambitious, but they are collective. It’s what we can do together with cooperatives and processors and with outside partnerships.

We don’t have all the answers today and that’s OK. It’s more important that we have a direction, and we do. Our goals are leading us to a place where the rest of the world will see dairy for what it is – a true environmental solution.