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CEO’s Corner: Trade + Sustainability = Dairy’s Next Frontier

June 2, 2021

Among all the great stories dairy can tell in 2021 as it celebrates National Dairy Month in June, from its reaffirmation by grocery shoppers to farmer leadership in COVID-19 vaccine drives, the sector’s gains in global trade is a true standout. U.S. dairy exports volumes reached a record in March, with the percentage of domestic milk production sent overseas that month the second highest ever. Revenues are also increasing – the $688 million worth of dairy products shipped abroad in March was the highest since 2014.

Trade is always top of mind at the National Milk Producers Federation, and of course at the U.S. Dairy Export Council, with whom we work closely. As the U.S. dairy-farmer organization that encompasses the full range of issues that shape a farmer’s success, we at NMPF are also focused on an important part of the trade story that’s less obvious, but increasingly important: how boosting dairy sales overseas depends on progress on sustainability investments at home. Just as it is in the United States, sustainability is increasingly becoming crucial for global consumers. The good news is U.S. dairy is a leader globally on sustainability just as it is on quality and affordability – crucial considerations for feeding the world, which ultimately benefits both farmers at home and consumers abroad.

First, the part we’ve always known: U.S. dairy farmers deliver affordable nutrition that meets global food-security needs. Nutrient-dense U.S. dairy products have nourished billions of people worldwide. They provide nutrients critical to preventing and addressing malnutrition, including high-quality protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iodine, and vitamins B2 and B12. And because U.S. dairy combines high quality and competitive cost, its export creates broad-based nutritional benefits worldwide.

But another, increasingly important element of U.S. dairy’s appeal is its world-leading sustainability. Even as they produce high-quality, affordable products, U.S. dairy cooperatives and the entire industry are cultivating and supporting sustainable food systems that are good for people, animals, and the planet. This serves global consumers and reflects their needs. It dovetails with the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability as defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and it also aligns with the values of stewardship U.S. dairy farmers have always embodied. Sustainability matters to dairy, as U.S. consumers have discovered — and as the world increasingly knows.

U.S. dairy’s commitments are tangible and measurable. The industry’s 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals and its Net Zero Initiative are putting the U.S. dairy sector on a path toward becoming carbon neutral or better by 2050 while optimizing water use and improving water quality. The same emphasis on sustainable production is at the core of the National Dairy FARM Program, which helps U.S. dairy farmers remain leaders in animal care, environmental stewardship, workforce development, antibiotic stewardship, and biosecurity.

Such sector-wide emphasis on best practices and sustainability leadership has already brought results. Innovative farming practices helped reduce dairy’s carbon footprint per gallon of milk by 19 percent from 2007 to 2017, while using 30 percent less water and 21 percent less land. UN FAO research has found that North America was the only region in the world to reduce farm-level dairy greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 2005 and 2015, even as milk production increased.

Choosing American milk products directly reduces global dairy emissions. That’s a great message for the world about U.S. milk. And make no mistake, the world needs what we have to offer. Global dairy consumption is expected to rise 16 percent in the next decade, and with competitors such as New Zealand and the European Union facing constraints on production due to their own policies, the opportunities for U.S. dairy brought through sustainable production are real.

So let’s raise a glass to sustainability this National Dairy Month. U.S. dairy farmers and its world of consumers are working to improve their health and the health of their planet every day. This is a success that can be sustained. And in the U.S. dairy community, it is what we pledge to do.