IDF global warming summit: the heat IS on

IDF Global Warming Summit: The heat IS on

Kees Gorter, a producer from the Netherlands, talks about the biogas plant on his dairy during a summit panel.By Susan Harlow, editor, Northeast DairyBusiness

 Just agreeing that climate change is real is a “fundamental” advance, pointed out one of the organizers of  the  International Dairy Federation’s (IDF) First Dairy Summit. Several hundred producers, government officials and journalists from 40 countries gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 23-26, to talk about how climate change affects their industries, and dairy’s responsibility in the global warming issue.
 At the end, Paul Wolcott, a New York producer, urged other attendees to take what they had learned home with them and put it to work. “The best way to start is to be informed, including an understanding of consumer and environmental issues,” he said. “We need to ask consumers what they want and work hard to provide it. We will not get credit for just talking.”
 IDF and the summit’s sponsors, DairyCo, a British dairy organization, and Swedish milking equipment manufacturer DeLaval, set up a website to provide a forum for climate change. The website is


 Dairy’s problem; dairy’s responsibility

Climate change isn’t just somebody else’s problem. If global temperatures rise by 1.8  to 4 C. over the next century, as projected, grain yields will drop 10% with each 1 C. increase, said John Gillland, chair of the Rural Climate Change Forum. Greater weather volatility will also hurt.
     The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from livestock, while a newly released  preliminary report by the International Farm Comparison Network (IFCN)  shows that 2% comes from dairy. Most GHG emissions from dairy are at the farm level, said Pierre Gerber, FAO livestock policy officer.
     But dry, desert countries are already feeling the changes. Those countries are “like canaries in a  coal mine,” said Tim Burfitt of New South Wales and Australia’s Department of Primary Industries. In Australia, where rainfall has declined 20% over the last decade, milk production has dropped by 2 billion liters since 2002 mainly because of climate change. Australian dairy farmers are moving away from pasturing to more intensive feeding concentrates.

If the public wakes up to the fact that Australian dairy, which exports most of its product, is essentially shipping water overseas, farmers will be hard-put to defend their industry, said Stephen Coats of Dairy Australia.
     In Egypt, where the vast majority of people live in the Nile Delta, Walid El-Sherbiny co-owns an 800-cow dairy with 65 workers. Water is the critical issue here, too. Groundwater is too salty for cows to drink; meanwhile, the country is losing arable land to a growing population – which, paradoxically, must be fed. A warmer climate will contaminate the Nile with salt water from the Mediterranean.
     As one strategy, Egypt is considering getting rid of its 6 million low-producing cows in exchange for one million Holsteins in order to ease pressures on water and land.
     El-Sherbiny’s dairy isn’t average for Egypt, where there are 1 million dairy farmers, but only 120 with milking parlors or more than 100 cows.  That shows the need for improving management around the globe. “How can we move 1 million farmers into the present? “ El-Sherbiny asked.

 The fallacy of the carbon sink

         Dairy can’t fall back on the defense that agriculture sequesters carbon, offsetting its GHG emissions, said Dutch researcher Theun Vellinga. Only grassland can be a true carbon sink, and that decreases as the sward ages. Meanwhile some soils, like peat, are releasing CO2, while grasslands plowed for crops also release more carbon. 

(More to come on IDF summit)