Net Zero Initiative Is Right Move for Dairy at Right Time

  • 5 min read August 4, 2020
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

As our communities continue to manage the unprecedented change resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, a topic that continues to be top of mind with consumers and thought leaders is the environment.

In fact, many see climate change as the next global pandemic, believing that the long-term health of people is directly related to the health of the planet. A Futerra survey showed 58 percent of Americans believe we should respond to climate change with the same urgency as we have responded to coronavirus.

Earlier this year, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy set new environmental stewardship goals to further the progress and commitment that dairy farmers and the broader dairy community have always had to responsible production. Goals to be achieved by 2050 focus on: 

  • Becoming carbon neutral or better
  • Optimizing water use while maximizing recycling
  • Improving water quality by enhancing use of manure and nutrients

The Net Zero Initiative (NZI) is an industry-wide effort that will play a key role in in helping U.S. dairy continue to make progress toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions and significant improvements in water from field to farmgate through new technologies and practices in feed production, cow care, energy efficiency and manure management. In other words, NZI is the “how” behind the goals, especially when it comes to helping all size farms continue to adopt sustainable practices that will ultimately provide a return on investment to us.

Whenever I share the vision of this work, I find that it’s effective to emphasize what NZI is vs. what it isn’t.

NZI is:

  • About a collective effort benefiting all farms – not about making every farm achieve net zero status.
  • A pathway for farms to voluntarily contribute – it is not mandatory.
  • About providing opportunities for farms of all sizes to adopt technologies and practices and create revenue streams – it is not just for big farms.
  • An effort that considers a range of technologies and practices on farms of varying sizes, designs and geographies – it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

NZI and other sustainability goals may not be top-of-mind for farmers, but they are for brands and consumers. Research done last year by The Hartman Group showed 70 percent of adults made purchase decisions based on sustainability at least some of the time.

Every day as dairy farmers we impact the land, water and air. But, as good environmental stewards, we use practices and technologies to not just minimize our impact but to sequester carbon, reduce water loss and improve water quality.

That’s our vision: Dairy as an environmental solution. 

We don’t yet have all the answers, but we know we must start working today to build our collective path toward this brighter future. That’s why NZI matters to farms of all sizes. It will focus on enabling us to expand our use of practices and technologies, get credit for contributing to these important goals and strengthening our position in the global marketplace.

NZI will operate through three pillars:

Groundwork – foundational work on environmental and economic analysis, research and measurement to inform decisions, update models and advance outcomes for farms.

Dairy Scale for Good – expedited economic and environmental projects on a small set of pilot farms to prove the business case, decrease capital cost, create additional revenue streams and de-risk the investment required to provide solutions for all farms.

Collective Impact – collaborative action to stimulate greater access to technical, financial and educational support and motivate the adoption of environmental practices across farms of all sizes, regions and designs.

Because of the heightened urgency surrounding sustainability, DMI has formed a diverse team of subject matter experts and scientists focused on agronomy, agricultural engineering and sustainability. This will ensure that U.S. dairy’s voice – and especially ours as farmers – is well-represented in conversations not just in the U.S. but around the world.

One of those experts is Caleb Harper, who joined our team in May to lead Dairy Scale for Good. Caleb is a former principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He has a tremendous background of leading engineers, scientists and educators in the exploration and development of future food systems and technology.

Caleb will be responsible for directing best practice and technology adoption and implementation on a handful of pilot farms. He also will develop third-party strategies to generate investments, partners and technologies that will keep farmers from bearing the entire commitment of this endeavor.

He’s already been on the ground meeting dairy farmers but is no stranger to agriculture. He comes from a family that raises horses and goats on a small ranch in Texas and crops and cows on a fifth-generation homestead in Kansas.

He also has been involved in several non-profit organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Economic Forum, as an explorer for National Geographic, and New Harvest, a cellular agriculture research institute. While this company goes against the essence of who we are as farmers and Caleb no longer serves on its board, his knowledge and insights in this area will be an asset.

I am very excited about Caleb’s ability to open new doors for dairy. He brings an astounding depth of relationships with other scientists, organizations and companies.

It’s going to take Caleb’s talents, as well as those from his teammates and the rest of the industry, to maintain dairy’s relevance in a global marketplace that demands a commitment to sustainability.

Putting a stake in the ground with our 2050 goals and NZI is not only critical to today’s dairy farmers but to those who will follow us in a world that will continue to change with the expectation that we, too, are open to producing dairy in a way they can continue to feel good about.