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Sustainable dairy

© Sue Viljoen

Unless you are dairy intolerant or vegan, many people consume milk, cheese or yoghurt at some point in the week. But what about the environmental impact of dairy farming and the production of dairy products on nature? By encouraging stewardship within and collaboration across the sector, WWF is promoting sustainable practices in dairy.

What is the issue?

Dairy farming and milk production are both very water intensive. In the complete life cycle of milk production from farm to fridge, at least 90% of water consumption lies at a farm level.

On a dairy farm, the biggest volume of water is used to irrigate the pastures that the animals graze, but it is also needed for cleaning the farm’s milking parlours and to provide drinking water for the cows. A lot of water is also used in the secondary dairy industry for the processing of milk into various dairy-derived products. At the dairy plants where this takes place there are specific cleaning requirements to ensure that food quality and safety standards are maintained.

A common issue across the dairy industry is that the focus is predominantly on milk production – and not water consumption. Many dairy farms don’t have water meters, so they don’t have a handle on how much water they are using. Another challenge is that there is low self-regulation around sustainability issues. There are no environmental standards or independent certification schemes to audit or monitor sustainability performance in the dairy sector. Plus, at a factory production level, procurement decisions generally don’t consider the environmental management practices of the dairy farms that supply them milk.

What are we doing?

WWF works with the dairy industry across the value chain – farms, factories, and industry associations – to strengthen water stewardship practices, reduce environmental risks and improve collaboration and business value.

How do we do this?

WWF plays a convening role to connect and bring together dairy industry stakeholders who would not normally interact. A regular engagement is through the Dairy Water Stewardship Working Group to share information and collaborate on improved water and waste management.

We promote awareness of water risk issues and South Africa’s high-rainfall strategic water source areas, which the dairy sector critically depends on. We also engage with local water governance institutions and their members to implement projects to benefit water quality and quantity at a catchment level.

WWF has also been involved in a number of dairy industry events – including the MPO Nedbank stewardship awards – to raise the profile of water stewardship in the sector and deepen an understanding of what best practice looks like.

Who do we work with?

WWF engages with a variety of stakeholders from dairy farmers and some retailers to household brands such as Danone, FairCape, Nestle and Woodlands Dairy. Also involved are sustainability service providers such as Trace and Save, as well as dairy industry representative bodies.

How did it start?

In 2014, WWF began engaging the dairy sector in the Upper uMngeni and Mooi River catchments in KwaZulu-Natal as part of the WWF-Mondi Water Stewardship Partnership which focussed on strengthening the water stewardship practices of agricultural sectors and forestry in key catchments. WWF also began working with irrigation boards and farmer’s associations in these catchments and initiated a number of projects, dialogues and learning events at farm and catchment level to help these associations and farmers monitor river flows, water quality and water use practices. By 2017, WWF realised that, in order to effect the most change, the work needed to shift from isolated catchments to a national scale with industry-representative structures.

What are the big wins?

  1. In 2016, at the dairy industry’s largest biannual event – the Large Herds Conference – the topic of water stewardship, presented by WWF, was on the agenda for the first time. In 2018, WWF co-ordinated the first-ever national Dairy Roundtables on Water and Environmental Stewardship. In 2019, we established the Dairy Water Stewardship Working Group to advance water stewardship in the industry.

  2. WWF initiated the Intelact Water Stewardship Awards, held in 2017 and 2018, and secured Nedbank’s sponsorship, to recognise leading farmers implementing water stewardship practices. These awards then transitioned into the MPO Nedbank Stewardship Awards, of which WWF is now a judging panel member.

  3. Together with the South African Society of Dairy Technology (SASDT), WWF introduced sustainability as a strategic business topic to the milk processing industry, presented at the 2019 SASDT Annual Symposium titled “Cultivating a sustainability culture”.