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Dairy Playing Its Part as a Climate Solution, NMPF’s Jonker Says

February 22, 2021

Through commitments like the Net Zero Initiative and efforts like the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, dairy farmers are well-positioned to be agricultural leaders in mitigating climate change, said Dr. Jamie Jonker, NMPF’s Vice President for Sustainability and Scientific Affairs, in an NMPF podcast released today.

“We’re producing more milk, we’re having less greenhouse gas emissions overall, which means that the U.S. dairy sector is already the most efficient in the world,” said Jonker, who also serves as chairman of the International Dairy Federation’s Science Program Coordinating Committee. Still, farmers face regulatory and financial challenges in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the sustainability of their resource use, he said. “The biggest challenge is really the technology and financial side. If we’re not able to have our dairy farmers afford to make changes in their operations, then they cannot put these technologies and best practices into practice on their farms.”

The full podcast is here. You can also find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and SoundCloud. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file below. Please attribute information to NMPF.


Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Sustainability is defining global conversations around dairy and animal agriculture as climate change rises as a concern and policy pressure is building for solutions. But those solutions need to be sound and that means scientific know-how. Dr. Jamie Jonker is the National Milk Producers Federation’s vice president for Sustainability and Scientific Affairs. That means he leads efforts on animal health and welfare, animal biotechnology, dairy farm biosecurity, dairy farm air and water quality, sustainability, and technical service issues.

But that’s just one part of his domestic portfolio. He’s also a global leader in dairy. Last year, he was elected chairman of the International Dairy Federation Science Program coordinating committee. He’s also on the IDF board of directors and through that organization, has also served on delegations to Codex Alimentarius, which sets international food safety standards. Welcome Jamie, let’s get to it.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Thanks, Alan. I’m glad to join you today.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Let’s start with something everyone listening can relate to, which is weird weather. Last week, we had examples of this all across the country and whenever that happens, you start hearing people talk about climate change but that’s the general conversation. What’s the specific conversation that’s evolving about climate and dairy?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Well, Alan, there’s a number of conversations around climate change in dairy today. And just like the weather, they change from day to day but here’s where they generally are. There are the perceived and actual impacts of dairy production on climate change. There are the potential impacts and challenges that climate change can bring to dairy production and there are opportunities for dairy to help address climate change. And those are the three spheres of conversations that I’m hearing today.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And climate of course, then gets wrapped up in sustainability, these conversations blend together. How are they related?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Climate change gets wrapped up in sustainability specifically about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. That is the increase in global average temperature due to the increase in carbon dioxide and other gasses. This has led many companies and many countries actually and was a precursor for the Paris Climate Change accords, for example, where these places are announcing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or even in some cases become carbon neutral. Greenhouse gas emissions is a place where some activists try to claim that dairy production and livestock production in general, to be unsustainable.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: When people in those groups that are skeptical of agriculture in general, start talking about climate sustainability, the future of the planet, dairy and animal agriculture as a whole gets a lot of fingers pointed at it and you see that in these debates today.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: I think there’s a number of facts that they just get wrong or misrepresent. But let me talk about some of the things that are happening in our planet today and in the future. We’re looking at a global population that’s continuing to increase, estimates are that we’re going to be nearing 10 billion people by 2050. As the economic circumstances of people, particularly in the developing world increase, they have a desire to consume more animal products and particularly, dairy. And we also know that milk and dairy products are a source of significant essential nutrients for people. Let’s just face it, milk itself is nature’s most perfect food and there’s a reason why people want to have more dairy products and that’s part of it.

Where are we today in the U.S. dairy sector? We’re only responsible for about 2% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, North America as a continent which is dominated by the U.S. for the dairy industry, is the only region in the world where absolute greenhouse gas emissions have decreased from the year 2005 to the year 2015, the most recent timeframe for which they have data. And it’s decreased by 5% and that’s even with milk production increasing on average about 2.1% per year during that same time period. We’re producing more milk, we’re having less greenhouse gas emissions overall, which means that the U.S. dairy sector is already the most efficient in the world.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I’ve yet to meet anybody who is pro climate change and saying, yes, let’s just ramp up those greenhouse gas emissions and that’s a global concern. Why is the U.S. able to get these results that other parts of the world that clearly also share these concerns aren’t able to do?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Yeah, I think one of the reasons we have the results that we have being leaders in the world is that we’ve been leaders in innovation in dairy farm production for decades. When you look at the way that our farming systems have adjusted to producing dairy in all 50 States and Puerto Rico, you can imagine that we have a very diversified dairy industry. We’ve got 34,000 dairy farms in the U.S. from five cow Amish farms that milk by hand to dairy farms with 10,000 cows that are practically vertically integrated industries.

In climates from Arizona, where it’s hot and dry to California, where it’s hot and humid to places in Minnesota, where on days like today, it might be minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we have a diversified industry that has adapted to those production realities in all sorts of environments and climates. And because of that ingenuity, it’s allowed us to become the most efficient dairy producers in the world.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I’m glad you bring up the five cow Amish operations, Jamie, because a person can be listening to this and they’ll say, sure, the U.S. does all this. We all know that these are super high tech, high scale industrial in scare quotes farms but it seems there are still some lessons that the rest of the world could learn given the full diversity of what you have in U.S. dairy.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Absolutely. And there are many things that U.S. dairy farmers are doing today to continue to drive down their greenhouse gas emissions and work towards what is an eventual goal for the U.S. Dairy industry to become carbon neutral by 2050. And they are things that can be done on small farms, like the Amish farms to the large farms. And we can take those opportunities, things like minimum till and no till, intensive rotational grazing, methane digesters on farms that are of size that can utilize that. And these can be utilized in other parts of the world, from developing countries to the most developed countries in the world. Our technologies are things that can be utilized not only in the U.S. but elsewhere.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I would note that there are some great stories about scalability, greenhouse gas emissions and dairy in the latest Dairy Defined, which you can see on our website at Jamie, just to add a little bit more to your resume, you’re also an MPF staff scientist and that means you play an important role in the farm program. Tell us a little bit about your work with farm, some of the climate solutions we’re already seeing on the farm. I know we’ve already talked about that a little bit. And what are some policy concepts that could further dairy’s role as a climate solution?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: You know, Alan, I think, you know and I know but maybe the audience doesn’t know the National Dairy FARM Program is a US-based on-farm transparency, quality assurance program that demonstrates U.S. Dairy farmers commitment to responsible and sustainable production. Environments part of it but it’s also animal welfare, antibiotics, workforce and so I’ve talked enough about farm. Let me talk about farm environmental stewardship. What does that offer in this arena? It focuses on measuring greenhouse gas intensity and energy use, farm-by-farm basis.

When a farm goes through an evaluation to get that information, they then can benchmark themselves against farms in their region and farms nationally. And then there are opportunities for how they can change their greenhouse gas intensity and energy use with things like our continuous improvement reference manual. This provides them opportunities on things like improving their feeding of their animals, working on their feed storage, or looking at alternative cropping systems, looking at how they store and manage their manure nutrients and things like methane digesters.

There’s a variety of things that farmers can do today that they can customize to their individual operation. But in the future, in order to be able to get to a net zero, or better by 2050 for the U.S. dairy industry, the do does need to be improvements in technology. And frankly, some financial opportunities for farmers to be able to recoup the costs of becoming carbon neutral. Some of these things were very good at reducing carbon emissions are getting us individual farms to even carbon sinks, cost money. And in order to be able to capitalize those costs, we need to have opportunities for dairy farmers to have things like additional assistance through U.S. government programs like Farm Bill conservation programs.

But also things like voluntary markets for carbon training, for water quality trading, things that will allow dairy farmers to capture the good work that they’re doing that has a cost to it. At minimum, we’d like to have this become revenue neutral for dairy farmers but really the goal is to have these enhancements in that best practices and technologies that move dairy farmers to carbon neutrality, to become a source of revenue for dairy farmers, helping to capture the good things that they’re doing as part of the environmental solution.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Are these goals achievable?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: They are achievable but we have to demonstrate a roadmap on how to get there. Last year, the U.S. dairy industry started an initiative called the Net Zero Initiative. It is that roadmap and how do we get the dairy industry in the U.S. to carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s looking at opportunities across all farms from best practices and technologies but also working in that policy arena that I talked about. There are changes that need to come through legislative processes and changes in how programs are done at places like USDA.

But even things like regulatory approvals for new innovative feed additives like the Food and Drug Administration, there’s potential for feed additives to reduce enteric methane, which is essentially the cow burps by up to 30%. If those technologies prove efficacious, that is going to be a great part of the story to getting to carbon neutrality. But there also has to be a pathway for approval of these products by the Food and Drug Administration so that we know that they’re safe and efficacious but also that they can pass through a regulatory hurdle.

Right now, the regulatory hurdles seem a bit insurmountable. Our regulatory hurdles for feed additives in the U.S. are quite different than they are in other places like our competitors in New Zealand or Europe, where several of these projects have already been approved for use. And so we’re actually behind for the U.S. Dairy industry under the feed additive side simply because our regulatory structure is different and is not as easy to navigate as it is in some of those other countries.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You’ve outlined a lot of challenges, Jamie. What’s the biggest one?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: I think again, the biggest challenge is really the technology and financial side. If we’re not able to have our dairy farmers afford to make changes in their operations, then they cannot put these technologies and best practices into practice on their farms. We need to have those market signals to them that allow them to be able to afford to make changes in their operations. And I think that’s one of the things that dairy farmers really are interested in.

They are always improving their operations, making changes to make their operations more sustainable from their own economic circumstance, for their family, for their community. Here we’re looking at all these impacts from individual dairy farms to roll together and make the whole U.S. dairy industry carbon-neutral. And we need to be able to provide those tools to the dairy farmers to make these technologies and practices affordable for them.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We are with Dr. Jamie Jonker. He is NMPFs vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs and he’s been joining us today to talk about dairy climate and sustainability. Jamie, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: I think just in closing Alan, I really firmly believe that the U.S. dairy industry is poised to be an environmental solution while providing milk and dairy products not only for U.S. consumers but people around the world. We’re exporting 16% of our dairy production today. Part of that is in recognition of the great work that our dairy farmers are already doing on sustainability. And as we continue on that journey, I think U.S. Dairy products are going to continue to be favored around the world. When we have the same bar as our dairy competitors elsewhere in the world, I think we’re going to win over every time.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Thank you for your time, Jamie.

Jamie Jonker, NMPF: Thank you, Alan.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that’s it for today’s podcast. You can subscribe to Dairy Defined on Apple podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes and Google Play under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.