By Tom Gallagher
It is well understood that consumer perceptions of dairy products and the dairy industry directly impact sales. Nutrition and food safety are two such examples. Recently, another factor has risen to the forefront regarding consumer perceptions of foods and beverages (including dairy) that can positively or negatively affect sales: sustainability.
Market research shows that sustainability continues to grow as a factor in consumer purchase decisions. This is due, in large part, to the ever-increasing disconnect the public has with the food and beverages they consume and the people that produce them. America’s farmers and livestock producers are among our nation’s original environmentalists. You live on the land. You drink the water. You care for your animals and the land. And, while we all know that dairy producers have a longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship and animal care, many consumers don’t know this.
In talking with thousands of dairy producers across the country over the past 12 months about the U.S. dairy industry’s sustainability initiative, we know that a growing number of producers – representing farms of all sizes – realize the business opportunity involved. Over the last year or so I’ve shared examples of how your producer investment in the dairy checkoff is helping lead the industry to identify these sustainability opportunities.
Checkoff role in sustainability
The dairy checkoff was created by and for dairy producers to help increase sales of and demand for U.S.-produced dairy products and ingredients – and to help maintain and build consumer confidence in dairy products, dairy producers and the dairy industry. To that end, the checkoff has funded and initiated specific efforts to support dairy’s sustainability initiative. These efforts aim to create an accurate, scientifically sound and defendable body of information that will:
• Increase demand and sales for all dairy producers, representing farms of all sizes and all regions of the country, and
• Help safeguard against attacks from anti-dairy and anti-animal agriculture special interest groups that, left unchecked, could negatively affect the image of dairy farms and dairy producers.
Through your checkoff investment, we have a two-fold focus on the sustainability initiative: create a body of scientific research that will be published in peer-reviewed journals that documents the dairy industry’s sustainability data, and use results to help maintain and build dairy sales.
The research and information collected by the dairy checkoff will help national and local dairy promotion organizations:
• Tell the story of how dairy producers are responsible stewards of the land, water and air, and care for their animals to produce safe, wholesome and nutritious milk.
• Support a life cycle assessment to document greenhouse gas emissions that will serve as a foundation to provide factual, science-based information to help protect the dairy industry from anti-animal agriculture attacks.
• Provide insights into consumer perceptions the industry can use.
In addition to producer investments through the dairy checkoff, other key industry leaders support the initiative through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The Innovation Center brings together all segments of the industry – producers, processors, manufacturers, suppliers, packaging companies, and others – to initiate work that extends and goes beyond the checkoff’s role. This includes more than 200 staff from dairy cooperatives, processors and manufacturing companies working together on various non-checkoff funded projects.
Additionally, National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association will leverage science-based information relative to sustainability to aid their efforts in the climate change policy debate; and individual companies will use this data – along with their own proprietary information – to market the best image for their products.
Dairy sustainability projects
Dairy industry sustainability projects range from crop and milk production, processing and packaging, to distribution and transportation. And, consistent with USDA guidelines, checkoff funds only support research and promotion. To fund other activities, the industry has secured nearly $4 million (through May 2009) in non-checkoff funds and other in-kind resources to support the initiative. Select projects include:
• Dairy Feed Systems focuses on nutrient management techniques used to produce grains and forages on dairy farms, and will guide feed production activities by facilitating adoption of agricultural best practices.
• Farm Energy Audit Program (FEAP) creates a model state agricultural energy efficiency program and drives demand for energy audits by educating dairy producers about the benefits.
• Cow of the future aims to reduce enteric methane — the single largest component of the dairy industry’s carbon footprint — by accelerating identification and adoption of proven practices.
• Dairy Underground assesses the viability of turning digester-generated methane into usable energy; it also explores various technology options for reducing operational costs.
• Dairy Power addresses barriers to methane digester adoption by coordinating cross-industry efforts to shape regulation, and conduct a market assessment to identify and prioritize regions with the greatest opportunity for methane digester adoption.
For more information about specific projects across the dairy value chain, visit www.dairycheckoff.com.