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How milk nourishes people and planet

May 19, 2021
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US dairy farmers and milk processors have made strides toward sustainability -- with reduced land and water use and a smaller carbon footprint -- and the industry has set its sights on further increasing its environmental stewardship over the next 30 years. In this interview, Yin Rani, CEO of MilkPEP, explains why the future of milk is more sustainable than ever.

Yin Rani, chief executive officer of MilkPEP
Rani

What are some of the biggest sustainability success stories in the US dairy industry over the past decade, and what new practices and technologies have made them possible?

There are endless sustainability stories, and for the last 10 years, the US Dairy Sustainability Awards Program has recognized the inspired efforts of US dairy processors, farmers and retailers who are making tremendous strides from farm to fridge. 

The Kroger Company was an award standout in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. Since 2011, its 19 plants across the US have diverted more than 95% of waste from landfills. In 2017, that number reached 97%, and its efforts are still going. 

New York’s Noblehurst Farms -- another award winner -- also springs to mind. Farmer Chris Noble pioneered the concept of Natural Upcycling, a collaborative effort to transfer food waste more safely and effectively. This effort diverts 500 tons of waste from local landfills and cuts 409 tons of carbon dioxide every month. That’s the equivalent of 1,046 cars being taken off the road.

Every year, we’re seeing more and more members of the dairy community entering the awards program, and we can’t wait to announce the class of 2021 this summer.

What is the Net Zero Initiative, and how is it helping make sustainability more accessible and affordable to US dairy farmers? 

There’s no doubt that human health is inextricably linked to the health of the planet, and the dairy industry is keenly aware that we have a responsibility to nourish both. That’s why we’re actively working to improve the entire lifecycle of milk, from farm to fridge. 

The dairy industry was the first agriculture-based industry to do a full lifecycle assessment in 2008, which determined that dairy production contributes to less than 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. That’s good, but today we’re making solid progress toward becoming carbon neutral or better. It’s worth noting that we’ve made meaningful progress: In 2017, producing a gallon of milk took 21% less land, 30% less water and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did ten years prior.

These milestones are important, but they’re not enough. So, in late 2020, the Innovation Center for US Dairy developed the 2050 Environment Stewardship Goals ¬¬-- three goals the dairy industry is committed to accomplishing in the next 30 years: 
1.    Become carbon neutral or better
2.    Optimize water use while maximizing recycling
3.    Improve water quality

The Net Zero Initiative is an ongoing initiative that links dairy farms and organizations representing 74% of US milk production and includes collaboration from industry partners in the journey of achieving these three sustainability goals. Nestlé announced a multi-year partnership and Starbucks intends to commit to the initiative as well. The challenge right now is a need for more research, more development and more accessibility to the tools and technologies that can help us reach these goals across farms of all sizes and geographies. 

In addition to on-farm practices, the Innovation Center’s Processor Working Group is analyzing opportunities to advance sustainability progress in milk processing related to greenhouse gases, water, waste and packaging. Achieving our sustainability goals will help milk continue to earn a total health position on consumers’ tables, and I have total confidence we’ll get there with the work we’re doing now. 

How are milk processors contributing to the sustainability of the US dairy industry through improvements such as renewable packaging?

Specifically, milk processors such as Clover Sonoma of California are helping lead the way with packaging innovations. Last July, the family-owned dairy premiered the first fully renewable, plant-based milk carton in the US. The company produced 10 million fully renewable cartons last year and plans to make all cartons fully renewable by 2025. The impact will be considerable. 

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that most plastic milk jugs, paper cartons and glass jars have always been recyclable and in some cases reusable. This fact gets lost in the chatter. 

How is the US dairy industry setting an example for other animal protein industries -- from meat to aquaculture -- when it comes to improving sustainability?

In January, the World Wildlife Fund published a study that found that larger US dairy farms can actually reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the next five years, which would have an incredible impact. They determined that if these farms succeed, other agriculture-based food systems and sectors will quickly follow suit. Pipa Elias, director of agriculture for The Nature Conservancy of North Americas, applauded the dairy industry and said, “... their science and measurement-based approach lays the groundwork for meaningful progress. For the sake of nature at-large, I hope we see more agricultural sectors take this approach.” We’re proud to be leading by example as we pioneer new processes and strive toward our 2050 goals.

Sustainability is increasingly top-of-mind for consumers when choosing which products to buy. How can dairy companies communicate to retailers and the end consumer about the sustainability of their products and the efforts they are making to further increase sustainability?

Our mission is to help people understand the vital role that dairy plays in sustainable, equitable and secure food systems: It nourishes people and the planet at the same time. Yes, cows do emit methane, a greenhouse gas. But it’s not the cow, it’s the how. How can the industry take care of the planet and its people? Our Net Zero Initiative is our answer, and more is coming.
Also, data show that milk specifically really does take care of people. It delivers 13 essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and potassium to fuel performance. It’s also one of the most affordable sources of protein on the market, providing nutrients that American diets often lack. 

We believe that dairy can be an environmental solution. So, whether you’re talking about the health of humanity or the health of the environment, milk continues to be a solution for this grand challenge.

Yin Rani is chief executive officer of MilkPEP. Rani brings nearly 25 years of integrated marketing experience across CPG companies and marketing agencies to the position. As CEO, she is excited to address the challenges ahead with thoughtful, sustained solutions and looks forward to working with the entire industry to help ensure a positive impact.