20 May 2020

Driving sustainability in the dairy industry

The dairy industry continues to make strides in sustainability, but consumers need to be reassured that they’re making the right choice when they buy dairy. Dr Jude Capper explores sustainability within the industry, how we can improve, and what messages we should be communicating to the consumer.

What started out as a push from government bodies for the farming sector to reduce net carbon emissions has evolved into a demand from retailers and consumers alike for more transparency in production practices. Modern customers want to know where their products come from and what impact their purchases have on the environment, animal welfare, and labour practices.

To some degree, cattle for beef and dairy get a worse press than other agricultural enterprises, due mainly to the methane produced by cows. It is sometimes unfair, however, considering that grazing cattle help to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground1.

New research2 also suggests that, unlike Nitrous Oxide (N₂O) and Carbon Dioxide (CO), Methane (CH) dissipates over time – about 20 years. This gives cattle farmers a huge opportunity to reduce emissions in a real way, over a relatively short span of time, if they can maintain levels of production while reducing animal stocks.

One of the biggest challenges, for the dairy industry in particular, is knowing where to start. How do you quantify what you’re doing? Unfortunately there is no simple answer. There is no particular breed of cow or brand of feed that’s going to guarantee a greenhouse gas reduction.

Another hurdle the dairy industry must overcome is the difficulty in quantifying its carbon footprint. Milk, for example, has a relatively low carbon cost, producing approximately one kilo of carbon dioxide per litre of milk3. One kilo of cheese, however, requires 10 to 12 litres of milk to produce, so the carbon cost increases accordingly.

Milk production, therefore, is the point of control that the sector has over greenhouse gas emissions. Everything done on farm (which accounts for 70% of the sector’s emissions) will inevitably feed down the supply chain.

Another hurdle the dairy industry must overcome is the difficulty in quantifying its carbon footprint.

Making changes

Sustainability is a balance of three factors. First and foremost is economic viability. Producing a high-quality product at an affordable price to meet your market. You have to make a profit, so any change that puts that profit in jeopardy is likely to be unsustainable.

The next consideration is environmental responsibility. Government targets often focus on carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, but efficient land use, soil erosion, water use and pollution, land degradation, and biodiversity should all be taken into account as well. If a farm is highly damaging to the land it sits on, it’s unlikely to be very sustainable and certainly opens itself up to negative press, which leads onto the third consideration, social acceptability.

Social acceptability largely ties the first two together. If consumers don’t want to buy your product because they believe it to be bad for the environment then it’s unlikely to be economically viable. Farmers need to be transparent in their production practices to make consumers confident enough in their purchases. The successful marketing of products such as ‘Happy Eggs’ and ‘Arla Big Milk’ show how consumers are sometimes willing to pay more for the reassurance that their purchase is supporting animal welfare and sustainability.

Hitting targets

Every farm is different and there is no one solution for becoming as sustainable as possible. It may sound simple, but the one sure-fire way of ensuring you’re on the right track is to be hitting your yearly targets in terms of yield, livestock retention etc.

By improving yield, while using the same or fewer resources, the farm is becoming more efficient and therefore reducing emissions by percentage of production. It doesn’t sound revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, but it does work.

Communicate with the consumer

The key message that the industry needs to be sending out at this point is that farmers care. It’s a common misconception that farmers are only concerned with making a profit, where the truth is that British farmers are continuously striving for improvements in animal welfare and sustainability. Farmers need to be transparent in this and connect with consumers through better marketing of their efforts.

Milk alternatives seem to be relentlessly marketed as healthy and sustainable alternatives to cow milk, where in fact cow milk contains far more protein, calcium and magnesium than any of its plant-based competitors4. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the levy board for dairy and other industries, is currently leading the way in promoting the benefits of dairy, through advertising via YouTube and online streaming services, with encouraging success.

The dairy industry should be proud of what it’s already accomplished. Having faced a number of challenges in the past, it’s proven to be an extremely resilient sector and has simultaneously managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 24% over the last 25 years4.

1 Carbon Footprint Evaluation of Regenerative Grazing at White Oak 2019 (Quantis): https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/hubfs/WOP-LCA-Quantis-2019.pdf

2 Michelle Cain, John Lynch, Myles R. Allen, Jan S. Fuglestvedt, David J. Frame & Adrian H Macey (2019). Improved calculation of warming-equivalent emissions for short-lived climate pollutants: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41612-019-0086-4

3 Smedman et al. (2010). Nutrient density to climate impact (NDCI). Food & Nutr. Res.

4 Smedman et al. The UK Dairy Roadmap Showcasing 10 Years of Environmental Commitment: https://www.dairyuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Dairy-Roadmap-2018.pdf

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