Fawn Jackson recalls a message she heard from forestry and fishery stakeholders when she moved into her previous role as executive director of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
“Get ahead of it, or else you’ll end up struggling to catch up from behind.”
Why it matters: On-farm practices developed to meet DFC’s goals may eventually be either recommended or required on the country’s dairy farms.
Jackson, who grew up on a cow-calf operation in Manitoba, recently joined Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) to head its efforts to help Canadian dairy producers meet the federal government’s climate change action goals.
Jackson, a rancher from Alberta who also serves on the boards of directors for Forage Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada, gave a Sept. 12 presentation entitled “How do we accomplish Canada’s dairy industry commitment to sustainability?” to the annual Dairy Cattle Industry Forum. The event is co-hosted by Semex and Lactanet.
DFC’s website declares the organization and its members are “committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from farm-level dairy production by the year 2050. There are also targets related to soil and land, water, biodiversity, waste and energy.”
As DFC’s new chief sustainability officer, Jackson is the public face of those commitments.
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Before hearing Jackson’s presentation, forum attendees learned about recent consumer surveys from Mike Von Massow of the University of Guelph’s department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics. He encouraged dairy sector stakeholders to ensure they have a place at the table when climate change action is discussed.
“Don’t wait until (consumers and governments) are asking for it. Tell them that you’re doing it,” Von Massow advised. “It’s true that, in some ways, dairy has a great story to tell but change is going to come no matter what.”
He said dairy has an established stronghold in Canadian retail settings and in popular culture due to successful marketing campaigns. In an emerging environment where “consumers are asking for diversity and different things in the grocery store,” dairy will have to work harder to convince consumers of the sector’s sustainability benefits compared to newcomers like almond, oat or soy.
“It can’t all be about the science,” Von Massow said, adding there are opportunities to share information about what’s being done well now and what improvements are coming.
“I don’t think we’re at Apocalypse Cow. I think there are some very encouraging things coming.”
Brenna Grant worked with Jackson to develop the Canadian Cattle Association’s life cycle assessments of the environmental effects of Canadian beef. In her speech to the forum, she said technologies are ready or will be released soon in the Canadian energy sector that can significantly decrease GHG emissions. The solutions in agriculture, by contrast, might be longer in coming.
As a result, agriculture’s share of total emissions may rise compared to the oil and gas sector, she said. The farm sector needs to be ready to respond to this with information about its progress toward commitments.
Jackson believes the dairy sector is prepared. Milk production per cow has increased significantly over the past quarter century, she said, which means “the dairy industry has a wonderful sustainability story to tell (because) sustainability is, in very large part, about efficiency.”
She agreed with other speakers’ advice to tell the public that the dairy sector has a plan.
“If we don’t bring consumers along on the journey, we’re in trouble.”
DFC’s sustainability commitments are between the planning and implementation phases, Jackson said.
A big part of meeting goals is getting access to research and development resources. Tax breaks for implementing some of these measures would also be beneficial, she said.
In keeping with climate change action, other sectors related to food and farming will look at “Scope 3” emissions, those created by the businesses from which they earn revenue. Requirements from governments to track these numbers coincide with pressure from consumers to provide climate-friendly stories about the food they buy and pressure on banks to provide investment opportunities that lessen GHG emissions.
That has renewed interest in the private sector for investing in innovative climate-friendly agricultural practices, Jackson said.
Lactanet chief services officer Brian Van Doormal said publicizing goals and plans to achieve them makes it easier to get government funding for research and development.
However, Scope 3 interest will inevitably lead to requirements for farmers to provide some sort of emissions report when they receive government or private-sector grants; as part of their consumer-trust traceability programs; or even when they’re applying for loans.
Jackson is hopeful that DFC’s work will enable it to provide this information on producers’ behalf, or at least make it easier for producers to fulfil requirements.
“Hopefully, that can take away from the reporting burden of the farmers,” she said, adding “it’s not just farmers who need to deliver on this. It’s the entire supply chain.”
DFC’s work is being informed by a Farmer Sustainability Advisory Group, comprised of dairy producers who were successful in an application process. One of its recommendations is to develop an “implementation guide” for farmers, which will be released soon.
The advisory group also recommended an on-farm carbon footprint calculator.
Jackson said research shows dairy-based GHG emissions originate 48 per cent from the cows, 28 per cent from feed production, 18 per cent from manure management, three per cent from transportation and three per cent from on-farm energy use, on average.
Grant said sustainability goals must be grounded in science, measurable, reportable and improvable. As well, they must be practical for farmers or the uptake will be inconsequential.
Meaningful monitoring is also required, she added. The National Beef Sustainability Assessment is updated every four to five years and, based on recent demand from consumers and other stakeholders, that’s not enough.
“We’re probably going to need to monitor more frequently.”
This demands a lot of data but Grant said this is one area where Canada’s dairy producers are well ahead of their beef counterparts.