ONTARIO — Yes, milk will be produced with “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050, a goal publicized earlier this year and recently reaffirmed by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) and Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) to Farmers Forum.
Both organizations expressed confidence that dairy farmers will hit the target 28 years from now. But their plan to get there is as clear as chocolate milk in terms of how dairy farmers will actually achieve the task, what it will cost them, and how or if the goal will be enforced.
It does appear that the Dairy Farmers of Canada hopes that its ‘net zero’ goal will include on-farm carbon sequestration to counterbalance continuing farm emissions — rather than strive to bring emissions from fossil fuels and fertilizers down to zero. DFC says it is working with consulting firm Viresco Solutions and is developing an implementation guide for producers.
Eastern Ontario DFO board member Bart Rijke suggested that the goal won’t be expensive. “I don’t think it’s going to cost us any money,” Rijke, a Hammond dairy producer said. “Maybe we’ll have to do things a little differently, but again … I’m not too concerned. Like most things with sustainability, it doesn’t cost money in the long run. You’re better off if you farm in a sustainable way.”
Farmers Forum asked the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario for their view on the net-zero target.
Are the provincial marketing boards all on board with the pledge?
Dairy Farmers of Canada: “The net-zero initiative originated from farmers themselves. For years, farmers have been taking steps to improve sustainability voluntarily, making tremendous progress. Farmers’ representatives on the DFC board challenged us to align these individual efforts under a common goal.”
What is DFC’s understanding of how the dairy farming sector will achieve net zero carbon emissions? For example, will it be accomplished by absolutely eliminating the use of all fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizers on Ontario’s dairy farms by 2050? Or will it in any way involve the purchase of carbon credit offsets and/or claiming such offsets based on certain (even current) farm practices?
DFC: “Across Canada, dairy farmers are already taking meaningful steps on their farms to help make this a reality, adopting technologies such as solar panels and biodigesters, new soil management techniques, new strategies for manure and water management, and much more. Other measures could be introduced gradually over time as part of routine capital investments – for instance, replacing an older piece of equipment that is no longer serviceable with a newer, greener alternative. Each farm is taking different steps, but all these measures add up to make a difference in the overall environmental footprint of dairy farms.”
Does DFC have an estimated cost that each of its member farms should expect to pay to reach net zero by 2050?
DFC: “What’s good for the environment, what’s good for the herd, and what’s good for business often go hand-in-hand-in-hand. Many of the sustainability initiatives we are talking about can generate cost savings or even create new revenue streams for farmers – generating green energy and selling that energy back to provincial grids, for instance. We will also leverage funding opportunities and programs from governments and other stakeholders (some existing, some new) to ensure that farmers are well-supported when they choose to adopt sustainability initiatives.”
When can this country’s dairy farmers expect to see more plans from DFC on achieving Net Zero?
DFC: “DFC is working with Viresco Solutions, a Canadian consultancy firm specializing in low carbon and sustainable agriculture. Their research and consultation identified over 40 specific practices that can be implemented on farms to both reduce emissions and capture carbon from the air (carbon sequestration). With the guidance of the Farmer Sustainability Advisory Group (which includes producers from across the country), DFC is developing an implementation guide which explains each of the practices and provides tips and resources for adoption. Farms will have the flexibility to adopt practices that best reflect the size of their farm, the number of cows in their herd, the specific features of their land, and a variety of other factors.
“DFC is supporting efforts at the farm level through our investments in research and via the launch of our Here for Tomorrow Partnerships Program. The Here for Tomorrow program supports a range of innovative projects being undertaken by our partners in different regions all across Canada. These projects include pilot programs to create new recycling opportunities and initiatives to restore and nurture wetlands and forests to promote biodiversity. Some of DFC’s current partners include Tree Canada, Cleanfarms and Ducks Unlimited Canada and the various partnerships were highlighted in DFC’s marketing campaigns.”
Does DFC intend to force compliance with the goal, or have the provincial marketing boards enforce compliance?
DFC: In working towards a net-zero future, actions will be driven and shaped by farmers as a one-size fits all approach would not be practical. At the national level, DFC is also working with farming organizations, research institutions, sustainability groups, food industry partners and governments to help reduce our overall footprint. Participants on the Farmer Sustainability Advisory Group will also provide their input and guidance.
Canadian farmers certainly operated on a “net zero” basis before electricity and fuel-burning tractors. So, Farmers Forum asked when was the last time that Canadian dairy farms would have operated on a “net zero” basis?
DFC: “Again, for years, farmers have been taking steps to improve sustainability voluntarily. The net-zero commitment essentially aligns these individual voluntary efforts under a common objective. Over the years, dairy farming has made great strides in cutting the emissions, land and water required to produce each litre of milk, thanks to investments and advances in agricultural technology and the sector’s steadfast commitment to continuous improvement. From 1990 to 2019, the carbon footprint of a litre of Canadian milk decreased by 24%.
“Canadian dairy farmers also reduced the amount of water needed to produce a kilogram of milk by 6% in recent years. And, through improved land-management practices, Canadian dairy farmers reduced the amount of land needed to produce a litre of milk by 11%. We’re committed to building on this progress.”
The first five questions were also asked of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, which bundled its answer in one reply.
Dairy Farmers of Ontario CEO Cheryl Smith: “DFO fully supports the national dairy industry target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and we are working closely with DFC on this to ensure we meet that goal through practical means that account for measures our dairy farmers are already taking to help the environment. We will augment this work with our own, ‘made-in-Ontario’ approach that will initiate environmental sustainability efforts on soil, water and waste.
“We know small changes can add up to big results and we often describe sustainability as a journey, not a destination. A recent survey of our farmers showed 81 per cent of Ontario producers are taking steps to promote soil health by reducing compaction and erosion, and rotating cover crops.
“Dairy farmers have always had a vested interest in caring for their animals, their farms and the land. Investing in making farm operations more efficient — financially and environmentally — is part of the DNA of a dairy producer and this extends to meeting targets to combat climate change.”