While producing dairy foods requires natural resources such as energy, land and water so food can travel through the supply chain from farm to table, the dairy community takes environmental stewardship seriously and is committed to contributing to sustainable food systems. Becoming environmentally friendly is a journey that evolves with science and new innovations and demands commitment and continuous improvement. Here’s a snapshot of what the dairy community has done, is doing and is planning to do in the future to continuously improve its environmental efforts:

Dairy farmers have a long legacy of environmental stewardship. Even before anyone knew what a carbon footprint was, dairy farmers began improving breeding techniques, quality animal care, specialized feeding practices and technology. As a result, each gallon of milk produced in 2007, for example, required 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water, with a 63 percent smaller carbon footprint than it did in 1944.

Building on this legacy, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a collaboration of U.S. dairy companies, cooperatives and stakeholders, made a shared commitment to sustainability in 2008 by creating the Sustainability Alliance. Among other things, members agreed to make dairy foods available in ways that enhance and protect our natural resources to nourish a growing population.

The goals of the Sustainability Alliance are grounded in sound science. Before the Alliance was formed, the Innovation Center conducted a comprehensive life cycle assessment of farms, transportation and dairy companies to measure the industry’s carbon footprint. This baseline data, published in 2007, showed that the dairy sector contributed about 2 percent of total U.S. green-house gas (GHG) emissions and used about 5 percent of total water withdrawal. Understanding the LCA allowed the dairy community to set a voluntary goal to reduce GHG emissions 25 percent from 2007 to 2020.

Guided by research and input from stakeholders, the Innovation Center board identified three environmental priorities to address: GHG emissions, energy use and water quality and quantity. They developed and completed several projects to reduce emissions and energy use and fostered partnerships to accelerate progress toward common goals of environmental stewardship.

Looking ahead, dairy farms and companies will continue to use the Stewardship and Sustainability Framework for U.S Dairy to set performance baselines and measure improvements on the field, on the farm and in dairy companies along the supply chain. Ongoing research will continue to advance the science and understanding of dairy’s environmental impact and help evolve best management practices.

Of course, dairy’s environmental footprint is part of a multi-dimensional approach to achieving sustainable food systems ? it’s also about the contribution to nutrition, public health, social wellbeing, economics and thriving communities.

(National Dairy Council. For more information, see nationaldairycouncil.org.)