June 20, 2024

O’Brien says U.S. agriculture has ‘open door of opportunity’

LAS VEGAS — Barbara O’Brien, president and CEO of Dairy Management Inc. and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, said agriculture has an “open door of opportunity” amid growing pressures and expectations to feed a growing population sustainably and responsibly during her opening comments at the Sustainable Agriculture Summit.

The summit, conducted under the theme “Regeneration and Resilience,” annually convenes the collective food and agriculture value chain to learn, develop and advance a shared vision for a sustainable and resilient U.S. food system.

O’Brien referenced recent events including the UN Food Systems Summit and COP26, the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as examples of how the conversation has reached an apex globally.

She said this is U.S. agriculture’s time to collectively lead and demonstrate its vital role in the health of people and the well-being of the planet. She cited a recent global survey that revealed agriculture is the third most-trusted industry when it comes to acting on climate change, exceeded only by the renewable energy and technology sectors.

“And yet, while trust in agriculture is high, consumers want to know more, with 65% of people saying they don’t know much — or anything at all — about climate change solutions,” O’Brien said.

“They want to be better informed, but say they can’t find information they trust or easily understand. And overwhelmingly, they want to hear less about the problem and more about the solutions.

“This means U.S. agriculture has an open door of opportunity to demonstrate our determination to innovate and to lead in being good and responsible stewards of the land. While we know there are no easy solutions, we also know we are stronger together.”


Kelly Bengston, senior vice president and chief procurement officer at Starbucks, served as the summit’s keynote speaker and stressed how the coffee company values the contributions of farmers, including the nation’s 31,000 dairy farm families.

Bengston said dairy remains an integral part of its business and is featured in more than half of Starbucks’ core beverage offerings.

“For 50 years, Starbucks has been dedicated to inspiring and nurturing the human spirit — one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time,” Bengston said.

“And in that time, we’ve also learned an important fact — our future is tied to the future of farmers, their families and the health of our planet. Right now, from the impacts of the climate crisis to rising costs, we know it’s never been harder to be a farmer.”

Bengston said dairy and coffee account for more than a third of the company’s carbon emissions. This led to Starbucks last year announcing 2030 targets to reduce its carbon, water and waste footprints by half.

Starbucks also joined the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative, collaborating with the industry on research, on-farm pilots and programs to make the adoption of sustainable practices and technologies more accessible and affordable to farms of all sizes.

To that end, Bengston announced that Starbucks is partnering with Alliance Dairy in Trenton, Florida, to apply and measure innovative technologies and regenerative farming practices that build an economically viable path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water use efficiency and quality.

As part of this pilot, technologies such as evaporative nutrient recovery will be explored with the goal of helping Alliance Dairy become a source of renewable and organic fertilizer and water reuse, while significantly reducing GHG emissions.

“At Starbucks, we are focused on driving innovation at scale to support people and planet,” Bengston said. “This includes identifying new ideas and technologies with our partners that are meaningful to farmers and then working hard to help get them on their farms.”

United Nations

The summit included various breakout sessions and panel discussions, including one that featured a group of industry leaders examining the implications of the UN Food Systems Summit for U.S. agriculture, which took place Sept. 23.

The UN FSS convened international stakeholders from across the food system with the goal of transforming the way the world produces, consumes and trades food. The event served as a call to action to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

More than 2,000 ideas were submitted during the UN FSS, including several Game Changers offered by U.S. dairy and other agriculture sectors. Coalitions were announced to drive action on priorities following the summit.

Organizations including the Innovation Center, U.S. Dairy Export Council and National Dairy Council were engaged throughout the UN FSS process as were several other U.S. agriculture organizations.

“The U.S. dairy industry determined early on that UN FSS provided an important opportunity to participate, to demonstrate industry leadership and share with the world our commitments to sustainability and continuous improvement,” said panel moderator Janice Giddens, vice president of sustainable nutrition for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“We wanted to ensure that the U.S. dairy supply chain, from farmers to processors, to retailers and exporters, was recognized for the contributions it makes to creating healthier, more sustainable and resilient food systems for all.”

Fall Meeting

The 2021 Dairy Sustainability Alliance Fall Meeting followed the summit. The alliance is a multi-stakeholder initiative of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and includes more than 150 companies and organizations.

Representatives exchange ideas, best practices and tackle shared challenges on issues affecting the industry to accelerate progress toward common sustainability goals.

O’Brien kicked off the meeting praising the 34 cooperatives and processors — representing 75% of U.S. milk production — who have adopted the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment.

The commitment allows companies to demonstrate and document how they responsibly produce milk and dairy products, reporting on key priorities such as animal care, environment, food safety and community engagement.

O’Brien also referenced the dairy community last year setting the 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals.

Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, O’Brien said the industry has set in motion a cascade of environmental work at the feed, farm and processor levels that includes:

• Pilots and research projects to identify and scale solutions that will be a win-win for farmers and the environment.

• Transparent reporting of progress at the processor level, included for the first time in aggregate within the 2020 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Report.

• Communications efforts to share the practices and resources available that make a meaningful difference in improving dairy’s environmental footprint.

• Baselines being set with an eye toward future goals where U.S. dairy can have positive impact.

“In a world where hundreds of companies, countries and global organizations are setting public-facing net zero goals, U.S. dairy’s leadership is critical in keeping dairy — and animal protein overall — positively positioned within global discussions around what constitutes sustainable food systems that can nourish both people and the planet,” O’Brien said.

“It has taken a lot of work to get where we are as a dairy community and yet we know there is more that we can do to ensure that dairy continues to earn a place in homes and in communities around the world.”

Other meeting highlights included:

• Donald Moore, executive director of Global Dairy Platform, and Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, assessed the potential policy and market impacts that the UN FSS and COP26 will have for dairy. They offered views on how these events will influence global expectations not only for exports, but for sustainable businesses in all markets, as well as what is needed for U.S. dairy to provide solutions and to remain competitive.

• Dairy farmers Sam Schwoeppe of Indiana, Matt Freund of Connecticut, Tara Vander Dussen of New Mexico and Jim Werkhoven of Washington participated in a discussion to share how they are approaching sustainability and what the broader value chain can do to support their efforts.

• Sustainability author and strategist Dan Esty provided a keynote address where he explored dairy’s place in a rapidly evolving business landscape. Esty touched on how nearly every aspect of business is viewed through a sustainability lens and investors are incorporating environmental, social and governance principles into their approach, putting pressure on companies to demonstrate how they will operate in a net-zero economy and resource-restrained world. He said the U.S. dairy industry taken steps that have it positioned to be part of the solution.

For information about the industry’s sustainability work and the dairy checkoff, visit www.usdairy.com.