Food Security

How to create a more sustainable global food system in the wake of COVID-19

The environmental impact of milk has shrunk significantly since 2007. Image: Courtesy of author

Barbara O'Brien
President, Dairy Management Inc.
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Food Security

  • COVID-19 exposed existing cracks in our global food system
  • As the world rebuilds, collective action to repair our global food systems is vital
  • Here is how U.S. dairy is supporting a more sustainable global food system

We are facing a looming crisis to feed a growing global population, expected to burgeon to 8.5 billion by 2030. In addition, worldwide lockdowns and trade and business interruptions caused by COVID-19 are expected to trigger devastating global food crises, with the number of people acutely food insecure doubling between 2019 and 2020, from 135 million to 270 million.

As we wrestle with threats to our global food supply, we must acknowledge the tensions that continue to influence our current reality: addressing short-term challenges to keep food moving to market during a global pandemic while meeting the long-term demands for resilience and regeneration; balancing the struggles of those who produce food and the demands of those who consume it; and considering the trade-offs between protecting the health of people and the long-term health of the Earth.

Amidst our recovery from the catastrophic fallout of COVID-19, collectively advancing the role we play in building a sustainable future and more sustainable food systems will be paramount. We believe U.S. dairy is part of the solution.

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A history of environmental stewardship

U.S. dairy farmers have a legacy as environmental stewards, continually innovating to improve their footprint by adopting groundbreaking eco-forward practices that enable them to produce 60% more milk with 15.7 million fewer cows, using 65% less water and 90% less land than they did 76 years ago. That's 76% less manure and a 63% smaller carbon footprint.

Fast forward to today and our continued, documented progress is that the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk has shrunk significantly from 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint. Consider a few examples:

In Wisconsin, Crave Brothers Farm uses a computer-controlled anaerobic digestion system to burn the gas produced by the manure of 2,100 dairy cows to generate enough renewable energy to power both the Crave brothers' farm and their Farmstead Cheese factory, as well as 300 nearby homes.

In Connecticut, dairy farmers Amanda and Matt Freund use their recipe for composted cow manure “stew” to mold nutrient-rich, 100% biodegradable CowPots for planting seed. The CowPots are used to grow produce and flowers at their family’s retail store, Freund’s Farm Market & Bakery, and are sold to home gardeners, commercial growers and retailers across the country.

In Washington, at Royal Dairy, Austin Allred uses hungry worms to break down the bacteria in his farm’s wastewater, which is then used to irrigate local corn and hay crops. The worms also produce a casting that serves as a high-quality compost for locally grown apples, hops and various other commodities.

And that’s just some of the imaginative thinking and purposeful innovation being employed by so many visionary U.S. dairy farmers and local businesses who believe the world is better off with dairy cows in it. A recent modeling study published in the Journal of Dairy Science assessed the impacts of completely removing dairy cows from the U.S., thus removing dairy from all American diets. The results showed a lack of presumed environmental benefits and a notable threat to human health. Availability of essential nutrients for people’s health would significantly decrease, as dairy’s dense nutrient package is not easily replaced by fruits, vegetables, nuts and pulses.

It’s no longer a question of either/or when it comes to achieving sustainability in supply chains and global food production. Both plants and animals play a critical role in the health of people and the planet and it will take collaborative, inclusive, multi-stakeholder efforts and partnerships to achieve collective, meaningful impact.

Advancing more sustainable food systems

Despite accounting for less than 2% of U.S. GHG emissions, U.S. dairy understands and is embracing its role in further reducing the GHG emissions coming from the agrifood sector. But how?

First, in 2020, the U.S. dairy industry set Environmental Stewardship Goals, pledging to achieve carbon neutrality, optimize water usage through recycling, and improve water quality through the management of manure and soil nutrients by 2050. Sustainable, on-farm practices, including regenerative agriculture and manure management, can result in the reduction of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation, providing rich habitat for wildlife, as well as the production of renewable energy.

To reach the finish line, we must find ways to bring new types of manure and wastewater management systems — along with other groundbreaking sustainable on-farm practices — to everyone in the industry. Widespread implementation and deployment will pack the collective punch needed to make a profound impact. If the gas from the manure of 2,100 dairy cows can power a farm, a cheese factory and 300 homes, imagine how much electricity could be generated with the manure of 9 million cows.

Second, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy launched the Net Zero Initiative, also in 2020. Regenerative agriculture is central to U.S. dairy’s net-zero efforts, as this industry-wide program aims to make sustainability more affordable and accessible to farmers across the nation’s 34,000 dairy farms by helping them develop meaningful innovation, leverage new technologies, adopt economically viable eco-friendly practices and create new markets and products.

If we can make it feasible and profitable for all dairy farmers, on farms of all sizes, to implement systems that use cow manure for renewable energy and biodegradable products, recycle wastewater and adopt new innovations we have yet to discover, U.S. dairy will do more than improve its environmental footprint — it will become a fundamental driver of a sustainable and nutritious food system that can nourish, not just humanity, but our planet.

As we prepare for the United Nations Food Systems Summit in September 2021 and work to repair the cracks in our food system exacerbated by COVID-19, our progress and success are incumbent on food leaders from all corners of the world coming together to set inclusive and ambitious goals that leverage the collective strengths of every facet of our food system – from the farm all the way to the consumer.

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