Dairy defined: Things to keep in mind as a Big Talk begins

ARLINGTON, Va. — Even though dairy farming is an every-day, 24-hour profession, it isn’t often that a specific day or a specific event makes much of a difference in how it’s done.

But this week is a little different. The United Nations is holding its preliminary round of official meetings in a Food Systems Summit that’s examining the very nature of farming itself and could lead to policy changes around the world in the name of producing healthy food more sustainably and responsibly. Unsurprisingly, anti-animal-agriculture activists are out in full force, making claims about dairy and its environmental impact in an attempt to monopolize headlines and win hearts and minds, even though their claims don’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

That’s unfortunate, because U.S. dairy plays an essential role in advancing sustainable food systems, and that’s’ what the world needs to know. U.S. dairy farmers use 30 percent less water, 21 percent less land and have a 19 percent smaller carbon footprint, per gallon of milk, in 2017 versus 2007. That leadership in global sustainability is becoming only more crucial as the industry continues working to reduce its environmental impact even more, from its Net Zero Initiative to become carbon-neutral (or better) by 2050 (or earlier) to everyday, on-farm stewardship.

Providing adequate nutrition to the world is too important to let a distorted debate mislead consumers about the value of U.S. dairy products. So, in the spirit of an intelligent global discussion, a few things to keep in mind as the UN begins its summit.

Global diets need foods produced at the highest level of nutritional and environmental standards. U.S. dairy, along with the nation’s entire agriculture sector and food supply chain, has significantly reduced its environmental impact in recent decades while reducing waste and increasing production. And dairy’s taken an extra step, through its FARM Program, to ensure that science-based stewardship informs on-farm principles for exceptional care of animals and the planet. A nutritious diet demands a diversity of food products; a sustainable diet is one where every type of agriculture plays a positive role.

Technological advances play an essential role in feeding the world more sustainably. Just like in medicine, food systems perform best when they include science, innovation, and technology. Modern farming and food-production practices advance sustainable food systems while efficiently meeting nutritional needs. From methane digesters to improved feed mixes, dairy is a leader in technological adoption for good.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” food system. Historical, cultural and personal considerations; diverse production and manufacturing systems; differing levels of economic and industrial development. They all mean that there is no one diet, one approach to farming, or one set of public policies that universally apply to global food production or consumption. U.S. dairy itself reflects this diversity, with large, small, conventional, organic and other types all co-existing — often in the form of cooperatives that themselves hold great promise as a model for agricultural development worldwide.

Rules matter in food systems as trade builds healthy diets. International trade improves food security and food safety worldwide. It increases the accessibility, availability, and affordability of food. But the food system needs rules that promote those goals to work best. U.S. dairy supports and promotes rules-based trade, whether it be fair and accountable trade agreements or common-sense approaches to naming cheese.

We hope the UN finds these thoughts helpful, and we stand ready to support science-based, practical ideas from the UN that work for farmers and consumers while making the food system better. Food systems are too important to fall prey to misinformation, and a global discussion should be robust and sincere. The dairy community is looking forward to being part of the Big Talk — and to continue its contribution to global solutions.


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