It’s World Milk Day and this year is all about climate action. All over the world, events are taking place to underscore the recent Pathways to Dairy Net Zero declaration, with dairy organisations showcasing exactly what they are doing to minimise their environmental impact.
In Mzansi, reducing the carbon footprint of the dairy industry has been high on the Milk SA agenda, says Colin Wellbeloved, the organisation’s vice chairman and director. He says that milk producers are usually in a carbon deficit, given the nature of their operations.
“Most of our milk in South Africa comes from pasture farming, and pastures are well beyond net zero. We are carbon sinks: we take in a lot more carbon on our farms than what we ever produce during milk production at the farm gate.”
Wellbeloved explains that the dairy industry’s carbon footprint becomes higher and more complicated after it leaves the farm, but Mzansi’s dairy farmers tend to practise sustainably.
“We increase the levels of the carbon in our soil every year with modern farming practices and permanent pastures, so we’re actually in quite a good position but we don’t measure it very well. And we don’t brag about it ever,” he laughs.
Driving climate action
The South African dairy industry has many climate goals, says Wellbeloved, who adds that they are informed by international best practice and mostly driven by the dairy processing industry.
“They’re the guys who need to market their carbon footprints and need to go for carbon credits. The goal – it’s a very broad goal – is that we’d like to reach net zero carbon by 2050: the whole industry, from the cow to the person who drinks the milk, would like to be net zero by 2050. And 50% of that target needs to be reached by 2025.”
When South Africa’s dairy industry reaches a net-zero status, it means that the industry will no longer be adding carbon and other greenhouse gases to the Earth’s atmosphere.
To help reach this goal, Milk SA is funding a project by Asset Research, which uses a simulation method to study how the monitoring of environmental health can be incorporated into the economic outcome of local dairy systems.
The study is divided into three phases and looks at the impact of dairy production on South Africa’s environment, how the environmental impact of milk production compares to that of milk imitations, as well as carbon capturing on farms.
Government and citizens can contribute
Ensuring that the country’s dairy industry reaches its climate goals is a complicated long-term process, but Wellbeloved says limiting exports and establishing a functional recycling industry could go far in limiting unnecessary carbon production.
“What would be really [good] in this country is [if] government could make it more difficult to import milk that we don’t need. We are a net exporter of milk, so we produce more than enough for what our country consumes.”
He explains that while importing milk can be fairly profitable, it does not help the environment.
“Obviously, there’s always a financial incentive for someone if they can purchase milk that’s being dumped by a European country at zero cents and transport it to South Africa. But you can imagine what the carbon footprint on something like that is, and all it serves is to put pressure on our prices here when we are already the cheapest producers in the world.”
Wellbeloved also points out that the dairy industry is missing a functioning recycling arm, which he says is a great opportunity for waste pickers to make money and keeps dairy cartons out of landfills.
“It’s very difficult to recycle long-life containers. They’ve got a layer of foil and a layer of plastic – and there’s lots of plastic. So, that’s one of the things we would like to see: the incentivisation of recycling. If someone could recycle [the cartons], if they had some kind of value, that would be great.”
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