Sustainable Dairy: When Enough is Enough by: Geoff Geddes


If you think sustainability is overrated, try running a business without it. In fact, it’s a key objective for scientists striving to boost feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle through the Efficient Dairy Genome Project. Ultimately, success for the project would mean production of dairy products via a more sustainable system, where science has bred for feed efficient animals; but to get there, consumers must buy in. Put another way: If we milk it, will they come?

“There is great diversity in the value people place on buying more sustainably produced dairy products,” said Dr. Ellen Goddard, professor and co-operative chair, Agricultural Marketing and Business, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. “That value is important, because sustainable products may come at a higher price, and those who don’t see the value may stop buying dairy products and opt for plant-based alternatives or other options.”

Based on Dr. Goddard’s research, people who know more about environmental issues are willing to buy more sustainable products. Those consumers will also pay a higher price for them if they view environmental problems as serious ones in need of attention; but the catch is that this only describes about 30% of the population.

Buyer be aware

“It is clear just by the nature of the debate around climate change that not everyone views environmental issues in the same way,” said Dr. Goddard. “If these issues are not your prime concern, then when you see a dairy product label saying it was produced with more feed efficient cows that emitted less methane, you won’t rush in and buy it.”

Given the impact of breeding with genomic information on aspects like milk yield, ensuring consumer buy-in for these products is vital to sustainability. Using a partial model of the dairy industry, Dr. Goddard looked at fluid milk –as it garners the highest price – to gauge the difference if the industry had not experienced the increase in milk yield associated with genomics over the past 12 years. She found that, without genomics, the milk yield per cow would have been lower, and given a fixed number of cows and lower milk yield, the marginal cost of milk production, as well as the retail price of milk in Canada, would have been higher. If genomics has had that positive effect, then using genomics to selectively breed for feed efficient cows will further improve dairy production.

“If the dairy industry can produce the same amount of milk with fewer cows, it can lower greenhouse gas emissions in the process. When consumers see greater feed efficiency and lower emissions as worthy attributes of the dairy products they purchase, farmers will get the positive message from the marketplace and adopt selective breeding for feed efficient cows.”

At the same time, researchers know that producer interest in selecting for such cows is not uniform across the population. If society wants that selection to happen faster than it would naturally, they may need to mandate it or provide subsidies to encourage action.

Under the influence

“If we could persuade some members of the public – who were not previously convinced about the importance of greater feed efficiency and lower methane emissions – to regularly purchase  reduced emissions dairy products, that will provide the marketplace and the incentive for producers to further reduce emissions.”

In Dr. Goddard’s view, that scenario would offer the best of all worlds: Farmers who are interested in decreased emissions for the right reasons; consumers motivated to buy those products, also for the right reasons; and technology to continue making reductions for the benefit of the environment.

Though it may sound like a lot needs to happen before industry and the public reap the rewards of the EDGP project, scientists are not overly concerned.

“All these things around producer and consumer attitudes will get resolved in time,” said Dr. Goddard. “This is more about the speed of generating the benefits than whether they will ever exist.”