…But Not at the Expense of Feeding the World

Criticism that food trade contributes to climate change is exaggerated, writes Krysta Harden, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. She argues that it is possible to feed the world while protecting the planet. The U.S. dairy industry is committed to achieving both goals and is taking concrete steps to reach its target of GHG neutrality by 2050. Read how U.S. Dairy is addressing the challenges of climate and hunger.

As the world’s food industries took center stage at COP28 in Dubai (30 November – 12 December 2022), focus on the dairy industry’s contribution to the process of greenhouse gas reduction is getting the reasoned consideration it deserves.

As dairy farmers, we also know that our product is used to create a wide array of nutritionally dense foods, beverages, and ingredients that nourish consumers in the U.S. and around the world. We also listened carefully in September to the U.N. General Assembly, which highlighted the dramatic increase in global hunger and malnutrition, all greatly exacerbated by war, the impacts of climate change, and supply chain disruptions.

Make no mistake: Trade has never been more important than it is now to ensure those in need receive proper nutrition as inexpensively and expediently as possible. Criticism that food trade contributes to climate change is, in short, overblown. Data indicates that food transport is a small contributor to global emissions, and focusing on so-called “food miles” obscures a multitude of factors that can impact a product’s carbon footprint, such as land use, production practices, and storage. New barriers to trade set up to achieve indiscriminate reductions will hurt global nutrition.

2022 study in the journal Nature found that restricting trade would worsen the impacts of climate change on hunger, increasing the prevalence of undernourished people by up to 47%. In contrast, that same study found that reducing barriers to trade would partially alleviate climate change’s impact on hunger, decreasing climate-related malnourishment by up to 64%.

And dairy is not just any product – few other foods pack the nutritional punch of dairy. In the U.S., milk, cheese, and yogurt are top sources of essential nutrients in children’s diets: protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, B12, D, and riboflavin.

Importantly, the North American dairy sector, where the U.S. is the primary milk producer, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity (emissions per gallon of milk produced) by 2.2% per year from 2005 to 2015, even as milk production increased by 2.1%. A major national initiative with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) that attracted $30 million of funding from food industry partners and the foundation aims to accelerate our industry’s emission-reduction efforts toward the 2050 endpoint of GHG neutrality.

And we haven’t stopped striving to improve since. Working together with partners across the country, we have taken several concrete steps toward reaching our industry-wide goal of GHG neutrality by 2050. This includes, however, is not limited to investing in research and pilot initiatives that will uncover new scalable practices and technologies that can increase waste recycling, water reuse, and energy reductions.

We know that we, like every industry, must move faster and at a larger scale on our emissions reduction work. We are not perfect – but we are devoting ever more effort and resources to achieve our emissions reduction goals while balancing that with the critical global needs for food and high-quality nutrition.

Because those goals are industry-wide, farms of varying sizes and across the different climates of the United States are currently testing new tools, tactics, and technologies that will work for their operations.

Achieving our ambitious goals will no doubt require many new tools in the toolbox. We are, for example, conducting research into soil management practices that can help improve productivity, reduce on-farm GHG emissions, increase the potential of soil to store carbon from the atmosphere and enhance water quality by reducing runoff.

Crucially, the tools that we need to achieve our sustainability goals must be economically viable. Family farms are family businesses. We are making the right choices, but we must also think about the economic viability of our decisions for today – and for future generations.

Fortunately, we believe it can be done. Already today, new revenue streams associated with more sustainable production practices are allowing farmers to adopt innovative practices and technologies in ways that are cost-neutral or profitable.

And that brings us back to trade. When we trade, we not only trade in products. We trade in ideas. Our trade relationships create a channel to exchange knowledge about U.S. dairy sustainability and dairy’s nutrient density – all those technologies, tools, and practices we are developing and all that research on dairy nutrition.

We were in Dubai for COP 28 to highlight both those facts and to share the U.S. dairy industry’s ongoing efforts to further reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while playing an increasingly large role in meeting global nutrition needs and providing food security. One critical component of that is trade.

Throughout the conference, we made the case as strongly as possible that open trade is essential to ensure the rapid and effective transfer of knowledge and make sure that sufficient nutrient-dense food is available for the people who need it most.

The planet has no time to lose in applying everything we have learned collectively to resolve the climate and hunger challenges. We must be sensible in addressing these two interrelated calls to action in a way that does not hurt one at the expense of the other.

This article first appeared in Fortune magazine.