Dairy chain makes further progress toward sustainability

Published on
February 11, 2021

In 2019, the Dutch dairy sector made progress in making the supply chain more sustainable. This is according to the recently published ‘Sustainable Dairy Chain Sector Report’ (‘Sectorraportage Duurzame Zuivelketen’) by Wageningen University & Research. The report shows that dairy farmers and dairy companies performed better on almost all sustainability targets than in the previous year.

Wageningen University & Research assesses the sustainability of the dairy supply chain annually at the request of the Sustainable Dairy Chain (Duurzame Zuivelketen), the partnership of dairy farmers and dairy companies that aim to create a future-proof dairy sector. Sustainability performance is measured in eleven areas, which themselves are linked to targets that should be achieved by 2020. In 2019, the targets have been achieved in five areas: responsible use of antibiotics, energy efficiency, outdoor grazing, responsible soy and phosphate excretion. The targets for greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable energy production, lifespan of dairy cows and ammonia emissions have not yet been achieved in 2019. The targets for animal welfare and biodiversity relate to the development of monitoring systems; progress still needs to be made in this respect.

Climate-neutral growth in sight

Progress is nevertheless visible in the areas in which targets have not yet been achieved. For instance, after three consecutive years of reduction, the goal of ‘climate-neutral growth’ is in sight. However, there is still quite some distance to the second target relating to greenhouse gases, being a 20% reduction compared with 1990.

Thanks to an increase in solar energy production, the sector generated more renewable energy in 2019: over 6% of the total energy demand is now covered by the production of sustainable energy. There is still a considerable way to go to reach the 2020 target (16%), partly because of the calculation method that considers only wind turbines and co-fermentation installations owned by dairy farms. If all sustainable energy production on agricultural land by dairy farms were included, this target would have easily been achieved.

Cows are getting older

The lifespan of dairy cows has also improved. After three years of decline, the average lifespan of a dairy cow in 2019 came in over two months higher compared with 2018. The reduction of ammonia also improved, with ammonia emissions declining for the second consecutive year. Based on preliminary figures, 2019 showed a decrease compared with 2018. However, there is still a considerable distance to the targets for the lifespan of dairy cows and ammonia emissions.

Targets for animal welfare and biodiversity were formulated in terms of the development of monitoring systems. Although a monitoring system for animal welfare was available in 2019, the baseline assessment has yet to be conducted and the sector target to be specified. While a monitoring instrument for biodiversity at individual farm level was available in 2019, steps still need to be taken to arrive at a monitoring system at sector level for the baseline measurement and specification of the sector target.