Dairy and consumer trust

by Tamara Scully

The Dairy Sustainability Alliance is a membership group which includes dairy farmers, dairy cooperatives, processors, agribusiness service providers, retailers, and non-profits. It’s composed of a variety of stakeholders from massive corporate entities to individual producers, representing interests all along the dairy supply chain. The Dairy Sustainability Alliance is a program of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Founded in 2008 by a group of dairy farmers, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is “a precompetitive forum” which brings leaders and dairy stakeholders together to focus on “category-wide priorities and best practices, advance a shared social responsibility platform and communicate U.S. dairy’s story,” as per their website, www.usdairy.com

The focus is on enhancing social, economic and environmental practices throughout the dairy supply chain.

As a part of their core programs, The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy also offers members the opportunity to pledge its U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment, which outlines a set of standards which participants can voluntarily agree to adopt, all focused on enhancing the organization’s mission of supply chain sustainability.

Measurable metrics are utilized to standardize and readily define and monitor all aspects of stewardship. Through Aug. 31, input on proposed changes to metrics measuring water in dairy processing and worker safety is being collected. A new metric on community contributions is also being proposed and comments are being solicited. The survey is available at http://commitment.usdairy.com/

The focus on sustainability all along the dairy supply chain becomes increasingly crucial as the impacts of agriculture, from fair labor to animal welfare, and environmental implications of food production to food safety, have become increasingly important concerns for today’s consumer.

Transparency

Ben Laine, Senior Economist, Dairy Processing and Production for CoBank, recently authored a report on the consumer demand for dairy industry transparency. Released in January 2019, the report states, “U.S. sales of products with some form of transparency claim on the label represent 31 percent of all sales and growing.”

Non-GMO, certified organic, A2 milk and grass milk are examples of some of the dairy label claims which have seen growth. Conventional dairy processors have rapidly begun to capitalize on some of these market segments, such as Danone’s move to natural ingredients and on-farm sustainability initiatives, as per Laine’s report.

This type of ecosystem services market, where value is given to the manner in which something is produced, are becoming prevalent. The measurement of value is no longer based primarily on shelf price — at least for some segment of the consumer population — but incorporates other factors such as production practices, welfare of workers and animals, and the size of the environmental footprint.

According to the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment, the dairy industry can significantly contribute to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The industry can have the most influence in the following categories: zero hunger; good health; decent work and economic growth; climate action; and responsible consumption and production.

Climate can be impacted through nutrient management and waste recovery, and reduction of energy use. Worker safety and human resource initiatives can contribute to enhanced working environments, and food donations can ease hunger.

Dairy farmers can be incentivized by the industry to implement some of the ecosystems practices that are in demand, so brands can develop and to capitalize on these trends, as Laine states in the CoBank report.

But for many, real sustainability can’t come from within the conventional dairy industry itself.

New paradigms?

The CoBank report also outlines the growing consumer demand for direct connection to farmer and food source. Increasingly, independent farmers are processing and bottling their own milk, and making their own cheese, yogurt and ice cream. Cooperatives owned by family farmers can emphasize that status and appeal to the consumer, Laine said. Further segmenting some of their product that meets certain ecosystem services criteria is another way to meet the demands for connection and transparency.

A system which has seen consolidation rise, a farmer’s ability to earn a decent living fall, and which has struggled with issues of farm worker justice, animal welfare accusations and questions surrounding standard industry practices such as confined herds may not seem to some like the most likely candidate to overhaul itself in any meaningful manner. Might a system struggling with overproduction, with the pay structure for dairy farmers and with externalized issues such as futures markets and global trade, simply have too many moving parts to focus on consumer demands or meeting the real needs of those lowest on the food chain — the farmers and farm workers themselves?

Non-conventional dairy

The organic market has benefitted from a consumer focus on better health for people, animals and the planet. A recently released study from Emory University tested samples of 2% milk from supermarket shelves. It found some conventional milk samples to have residues of current use pesticides or antibiotics present in the milk tested. Some had levels of contaminants which were higher than Federal limits. No measurable residues were detectable in certified organic milk samples.

But the USDA’s National Organic Program is in trouble too. Its critics are focusing on the need for enhanced transparency and as well as what is seen as the lax standards which many certifying operations are utilizing. With ambiguity in areas such as outdoor access, grazing days and the acceptability of certain practices, certified organic dairy is having its share of disputes.

The Real Organic Project is just one example of a farmer-led group that is seeking a means of increasing transparency in the certified organic food chain. In this case, they are leading the charge for an enhanced add-on label to the existing USDA certification. This add-on label does not negate the USDA’s certified organic label, but is an additional label which distinguishes between farmers who are going beyond the certified organic standards and incorporating other ecosystem services, specifically soil-based agriculture and pasture-raised products, including grass-based dairy.

Other third party labels, such as Organic Valley and Maple Hill’s joint Certified Grass-fed Livestock Program, certifies that the milk comes from cows who were fed no grain, and requires more days on pasture as well as more dry matter intake from pasture than the USDA’s organic program standards. Currently, more than 300 dairy farms, over a dozen processors and about 50 dairy products are certified under the label.

Putting profits over planet and people is no longer going to be an easy row to hoe for anyone involved in food production, as transparency becomes a key component of purchasing decisions. Can an industry focused on increasingly larger herds, many of which are now located in states with pre-existing natural resource concerns, and reliant on low wage farm workers, offer consumers enough transparency to convince them that sustainability can be achieved within the system?

That will be the challenge for the dairy industry as a whole moving forward. For some, any measure of meaningful change will only come from smaller segments of the industry — farmers or smaller scale cooperatives and processors — as a significant number of farmers and consumers alike seek a return to smaller scale production, direct marketing, local connections and relationship farming.

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