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CEO’s Corner: Dairy Builds Progress on Sustainability as Legislation Inches Forward

November 3, 2021

Members of Congress continue working on budget reconciliation and infrastructure legislation that, for all of its political challenges, could provide important support for U.S. dairy’s efforts to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We are hoping for a positive conclusion to this process: Strong candidates for inclusion in a final package are important policy gains for dairy that set up farms for new revenue streams and help achieve crucial industry goals. And once those measures are achieved, additional opportunities for dairy success lie ahead.

The biggest emerging opportunity in the current bills before Congress comes under the heading of “climate-smart agriculture” thanks to the leadership of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.  The idea of farmer stewardship as a climate solution is a no-brainer within farming, but it’s picking up steam more broadly as a way to help farms prosper in a world in which climate change will be a bigger part of federal policy, regardless of which party is in charge. “Climate-smart” often can also mean “conservation smart” as well: That’s creating opportunities to re-examine federal conservation programs in ways that better fit dairy by emphasizing industry practices that can generate and yield meaningful environmental benefits. These can range from sequestering carbon in soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to creating new revenue streams from manure management.

Dairy has long supported robust conservation funding, but those programs haven’t always emphasized some of the stewardship practices in which dairy farmers excel most. Ample and appropriate climate-smart ag funding, as an element of the reconciliation package, will move conservation programs in the right direction, creating opportunities to recognize dairy farmers for the great work they’re doing and offering incentives for additional efforts including reducing enteric emissions through improved feed and diet management. That in turn supports the industry’s Net Zero goals and makes U.S. milk even more marketable for sustainability-conscious international customers.

Related to climate-smart progress is the Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Act, which would create a 30 percent investment tax credit to cover the upfront costs of nutrient separation technologies as well as methane digesters for a variety of different uses. The idea has found bipartisan support among tax-writing committees in both the House and Senate, and at least parts of the proposal are in vehicles that could be included in the budget reconciliation package. Doing so would create a great opportunity for producers to turn their environmental leadership into a balance-sheet gain.

These initiatives — and other benefits that range from expanded rural broadband to improved roads and bridges — make us enthusiastic about what the bills being negotiated could hold for dairy, especially with the sidelining of tax proposals that could have harmed the future of family dairy farming in this country. And beyond them, other industry goals are on track for success as well. Prominent among them is faster approval of the feed additives dairy needs to meet emissions goals and compete worldwide.

The Food and Drug Administration has long treated animal feed additives seeking market approval as drugs rather than as foods, a more cumbersome regulatory process that’s impeding a potential game-changer in reducing enteric emissions and meeting Net Zero goals. We’ve argued before FDA that the additives, which are absorbed via the digestive tract, should be treated as food. This year, we’re making progress in prevailing. Both the House and the Senate appropriations bills for the 2022 fiscal year include language looking at how we can get FDA to classify these additives appropriately – and importantly, include the funding needed to see that job through.

These gains, along with progress toward voluntary carbon markets and other initiatives, represent years of work from NMPF and its allies. It’s gratifying to see them nearing reality. It’s also important to note that even if some, or even all, of these goals aren’t reached in the next few weeks – if their legislative vehicles get snagged by the back-and-forth of Washington or some components aren’t included in a final agreement – the support they’ve attracted this year positions dairy well for the next farm bill, the writing of which will begin in earnest very soon. Patience will be rewarded.

These initiatives may not get the same attention as headline items like free community college or childcare, but for dairy, they represent real improvements in farmer fortunes. They don’t happen overnight – but they remind us why dairy’s future is exciting, and why even though the narrative may often be that “nothing’s getting done,” the fact is, sometimes progress happens. And we’re pleased to be helping it along.