Is dairy farming like juggling in a water bed?

There is certainly a resemblance: the dairy farmer juggling all the skills needed to produce milk in a sustainable and profitable way, standing on the uncertainties of policies and markets. Therefore, it is important that advisors, academics and suppliers in the industry support them with knowledge and tools to help making the right decisions, says Anna-Karin Modin Edman from the Swedish Dairy Association when we talked to her about dairy farming and sustainability.

Anna-Karin Modin Edman

What is being done to increase dairy’s sustainability on a national level in Sweden?

"The Swedish dairy sector’s focus right now is mainly on how to reduce environmental impact and nutrient losses. The Swedish government has indicated that these issues are prioritized, and they are part of the 16 environmental objectives that have been set by the government. There are grants available for the development of tools for nutrient loss reductions, energy savings and other climate-related projects. So there are clear signals from the policy makers in Sweden that the environment is a focus area."

How is IDF’s work on the environment important to the dairy farmers at a local level?

"In the IDF meetings there is a focus on how we can work together globally within the industry, where we need more knowledge and how we measure the carbon footprint."

"There is a need to define a standard method for measuring. To be able to set targets and make improvements it’s important to know where we stand in terms of environmental impact, instead of just guessing or believing. These global standards will make it possible to come back five years from now and see if the development is in the right direction."

"The Life Cycle Assessment method developed by IDF and the international dairy industry is important as we move forward. It also gives the Swedish dairy industry the possibility to show the policy makers what has been and is being done."

What about the Swedish consumers, what is their attitude in these matters?

"In general the Swedish consumers have a lot of respect for the dairy farmers and their hard work. On the other hand, there are groups that have a negative view on dairying, and all kinds of animal production. Unfortunately these groups are sometimes the most vocal. I believe the public debate needs to be more nuanced."

"I think that many dairy farmers feel that they are being accused of cruelty against animals and of ruining the environment even though they produce high quality milk and take animal welfare very seriously. This is unfair, and they should be allowed to be proud."

Is there a distance, or a gap, between dairy farmers and policy makers?

"Well, yes. In general I think that people in the cities, the consumers and policy makers, have very little connection to the country side and agricultural production. With so few dairy farmers left, not many people actually know a dairy farmer these days. And this growing distance of course affects both the understanding of the complexity of dairy farming, and maybe even the understanding of the farmers’ situation."

"Some people have an idealized image of milk production, about what is good or bad milk. The small farm with a small production is often seen to be ‘nicer’ than milk from a large farm where the farmer has invested in new technology, both for milking and for animal comfort, who has streamlined the operation so as not to waste resources, and who knows that a happy cow gives more milk."

Who pays for animal welfare and quality milk?

"The consumers must be willing to pay for important milk quality aspects like animal welfare and positive environmental values created by the production. In Sweden, the environmental goals regarding biodiversity and landscape variation cannot be reached without milk production. Some of these values are connected to grazing animals. Hence, the milk production provides very valuable collective goods to society and should be paid for this."

"In Sweden there are pasture-grazing regulations. Since this is required by law it is difficult to charge for, whereas in other countries they can use this as a value-adding feature, to increase the price."

"At the same time we can see this regulation as a collective good, something that benefits us all and of which we can be proud. This is the way we treat cows in Sweden, this is our standard. However, the consumers must be prepared to foot the bill for this standard. Individual dairy farmers cannot be expected to provide this free, especially not with the harsh economic situations that many suffer. It is unfair."

"As a global industry, we should look at how we communicate these added values and how we can increase the consumers’ willingness to pay the extra cost of even higher animal welfare and milk quality. This is a real challenge."

Is it possible to produce milk sustainably? Are dairy products the best alternative for feeding the world?

"A lot of people in organizations like for example FAO are struggling with these questions. I guess it boils down to how we should live our lives. What is a sustainable diet? Will milk and dairy products be a part of it? I am not a nutritionist, but I believe so. Milk contains so many nutrients, and I think it would be quite a challenge replacing them with other kinds of food, without increasing your calorie intake. You would need to consume so many other things that there is a risk for overfeeding. Obesity is also part of the sustainability discussion; it also leads to poor health and even death. We need to find a balance for the world’s population."

"But sustainability is also about land use. Regarding milk production we have to discuss what are the natural conditions for milk production in a specific area? There are a lot of aspects to consider here. But land use is also about many other aspects. Is it sustainable to live in mega cities? Should we use land to plant Christmas trees?"

"When people in e.g. the vegan movement claim that animal foods consumption must be stopped I wonder if they are prepared to limit all aspects of consumption. How many pairs of jeans are you allowed, how often can you change your mobile phone and are you allowed to have a Christmas tree? It all adds up. A fair but very complex way of solving this would be if we could get individual carbon emission allowances. However, the complexity of such a system is far too great to be realistic."

"The dairy industry has a responsibility to do everything it can to make sure that production is as sustainable as possible. The industry must be able to stand straight, by always trying to do the right thing. We need to be able to say that we are working to improve things where it is needed."

What will milk production look like 10 years from now?

"In ten years time I think that milk production will become more resource efficient. We cannot afford waste and inefficiency in any kind of production in a world with a growing population."

"There will be more focus on animals as a resource, so animal welfare and health will be even more important, both in Sweden and in other milk producing countries."

"I believe there will be an increased awareness that it is profitable to have good control over the herd and the production as a whole. Knowledge is key, of course, but not only that. There has to be systems in place that make it easy for the dairy farmers to do the right thing."

"We need to have a healthy respect for the complexity of the dairy farm operation. Think about the different skills a milk producer needs: as an economist, a strategist, an animal expert, a nutritional expert, a mechanic, an employer and a negotiator with the bank. And I believe that we, the advisors, the academics, the policy makers and equipment suppliers all need to help the dairy farmers make the right choices. The right way has to be the easiest. Things are already developing in this direction, with more technology to support them in their decision-making."

"Everyone can do things better, no matter your starting point. However, it’s important to understand that milk production is a dynamic system. Being a dairy farmer is almost like juggling in a waterbed! You need to have so many things under control, some of them you can influence, but others you can’t."

"We need to communicate what milk production is all about, that healthy cows give more milk. The people who consider it a cruelty to inseminate cows to keep them pregnant, what do they compare with? I find it hard to believe that under what they call ‘natural conditions’ the bull would be considerate and not impregnate the cow every time she was in heat."

Anna-Karin Modin Edman is Environment and Climate expert at the Swedish Dairy Association. She is also member of the IDF Standing Committee on the Environment, and at the IDF World Dairy Summit 2010 she presented a study on the nutrient density of beverages in relation to climate impact


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Monica Wadsworth

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