Thursday, October 15, 2020

Dairy Foods Trend Alert: Think Long Term and Be Part of the Regenerative Agriculture Movement

Today is World Food Day 2020. It marks the 75th anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in an exceptional moment as countries around the world deal with the widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While there are more days than not when I cannot think about tomorrow because it stresses me out, it is essential that dairy foods manufacturers think ahead in order to provide nutrition for an anticipated population of 10 billion by 2050. Global warming is real and it’s impacting agriculture right before our eyes. Some regions are experiencing increased heat and drought, while others have flooding and large, damaging storms. Agricultural lands are at risk with both scenarios, which is why we must do our part to improve the ecosystem. It all comes down to the soil. 

Maple Hill Creamery recently sponsored a media viewing of the new documentary “Kiss The Ground” at a pop-up drive-in theater in Chicago. Narrated by Woody Harrelson, the film details how regenerative agriculture has the potential to balance the earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and feed the world. 

Dairy cows are an important part of the regenerative agriculture movement. Implementing regenerative practices on dairy farms requires a holistic approach to managing land, cows and manure.

I wrote “The Dirt on Soil and Why it Matters” this past week for Food Business News. I highly encourage you read my column HERE.

I also encourage you to watch “Kiss The Ground,” which is currently available on Netflix. At the very least, please view the trailer HERE.

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to strengthen ecosystem and community resilience. These practices pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil and can help the land be more resilient to extreme weather events. Additionally, regenerative agriculture practices help to increase water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling and reduce soil erosion, which have been shown to positively impact the quality of nearby lakes, rivers and streams. These benefits can translate to farmers’ pocketbooks by ensuring that more nutrients stay in the field to be absorbed by plants rather than lost to wind or water erosion. Regenerative practices on dairy farms can look slightly different than row crop farms, specifically incorporating adaptive grazing on pastures and cropland, according to General Mills, the maker of Yoplait, Liberté and Mountain High yogurt products.

The company is active in this space. In June, General Mills announced the start of a three-year regenerative dairy pilot in Western Michigan, a key sourcing region for its fluid milk supply. This is the third regenerative agriculture pilot that the company has launched--and the first for its dairy ingredient supply--since making a commitment in 2019 to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030.

“In order for regenerative agriculture to be successful, it must first be economically viable for farmers as a lever to help build operational and financial resilience,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills. “With this pilot, General Mills is committed to ensuring that the transition to regenerative practices will be beneficial to our dairy partners and enhance the overall health of their farms.”

Maple Hill Creamery is also committed. The company believes in communicating the message that livestock is paramount to the regenerative agriculture movement.

“Healthy soil is the cornerstone of everything we do,” said Carl Gerlach, CEO of Maple Hill. “We work tirelessly within out network of organic 100% grass-fed farmers to develop and implement practices that result in the regeneration of the land through the management of organic grass-fed cows.

“When managed in harmony with nature, grazing cows are one of the most effective tools on earth as far as igniting the life in the soil, which is the foundation of the carbon cycle,” he said. “We believe that 100% grass-fed organic dairy farming done right is the pinnacle of organic and leaves the soil better than we found it.”

This is one of my favorite examples to explain the role of ruminant animals in our food chain:

A stalk of corn provides two to three cobs. Humans can only digest the kernels, and for that matter, not even all of the kernel. The fibrous outer shells of corn kernels pass through the gastrointestinal system undigested due to lack of the necessary digestive enzyme. The rest of that corn plant is useless to humans for energy; however, it’s a meal for ruminant animals such as cows. Cows effectively convert the nutrients in that stalk, husk and cob to meat and milk for human consumption.

A new report from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) explains how for the last half century, U.S. animal agriculture has focused primarily on improving productivity, efficiency and throughput, resulting in increasing supplies of commodities that have helped assure a safe, abundant U.S. food supply and growing export markets. The report shows a pivotal shift in cultural and market expectations for animal protein, and four emerging trends where the industry can innovate. While the report focuses on meat, these trends are relevant to dairy cows as well. They present an opportunity for what I believe will be the next trending dietary lifestyle: the regenerative diet. 

“American consumers have benefitted from the consistent growth in productivity and efficiency, spending less of their disposable income than consumers in any other country on food,” said Charlie Arnot, CFI CEO. “But we’ve reached an inflection point where engaged consumers, investors, policy makers and other key stakeholders have new priorities and are asking whether attributes beyond productivity and efficiency deserver greater focus.” 

New trends are accelerating and gaining a foothold, according to members of the CFI Consumer Trusts Insights Council, a collaboration of consumer insights experts, social scientists, researchers and food industry consultants who analyze emerging trends and provide strategic guidance. Technology is front and center, according to the report. A new generation of consumers embraces technology, expects innovation and demands engagement.

“Niche start-ups are speaking the language of a younger demographic that has grown up with smart devices in their hands and in their kitchens,” said Kevin Ryan, founder of Malachite Strategy and a member of the council. “The generation raised on technology expects innovation and an opportunity to engage to ensure their voices are being heard.”   

The research identifies four major opportunities for the animal protein space as indicated by the maturity of demand in the marketplace. Demand for these categories has now moved into the mainstream.

  1. Fresh and high quality. A key opportunity is consumer desire for high-quality animal proteins.
  2. Stretching purchases. Consumers facing financial uncertainty are seeking ways to make protein last longer for their families, which means saving money and making fewer trips to the store. 
  3. Ethically Raised Animals. Consumers continue to express concern about supporting industrial scale farms but they don’t want to give up easy, affordable animal proteins. This means they want easy access and easy to prepare with a solid nutrition profile.  
“This is a great opportunity for dairy farmers to reassure consumers that dairy is part of a socially responsible and healthy diet,” Arnot told the Daily Dose of Dairy in an exclusive interview. “Consumers are looking for permission to believe that dairy farms care about food safety, the treatment of workers, the well-being of animals and the protection of our environment. Sharing dairy’s amazing story is a great way to provide that reassurance.”

        4. Plant-Based Alternatives. Consumers are conflicted. They aren’t impressed with the taste of many plant-based alternatives, even when they’re looking to reduce meat consumption. They prefer the taste and texture of real animal products, but plant-based alternatives are perceived by some as “better for me and better for the planet.” 

“Again, this is a terrific opportunity to tell the story of great-tasting, nutrient-dense dairy products and to link that with dairy’s impressive sustainability story, including the recent commitment to become ‘net-zero’ in carbon emissions,” Arnot said. “So much good work has been done, but there is still a perception that plant-based alternatives are better for the environment.”

It’s time to spread the message about cows and their role in regenerative agriculture. 

Consumers engaging on the topic of animal protein sit squarely in the driver’s seat as the nation continues to adapt to the evolving reality of the pandemic. Already, some innovators are actively working to meet their expectations with products that give consumers permission to enjoy animal protein, said Arnot. 

“Those who follow the lead of consumers, leverage these newly identified opportunities and address the increasing array of complex challenges without sacrificing efficiency will rise to the top as the likely winners,” he said. “And those committed to preserving the status quo will be left behind.”

Dairy products that give consumers permission to enjoy animal protein come in all shapes and sizes. Every single dairy food in the marketplace is inherently nutritious, have it be the protein, the calcium, the potassium or the essential fatty acids, to name a few nutrients, dairy cows and the dairy foods made from their milk present a holistic approach to health and wellness, something that resonates with young consumers. These are your future heads of household, gatekeepers, moms and dads. 

Consumers are expressing a strong belief in the healing power of foods and many are actively using kitchen medicine, both for prevention and for specific medical purposes according to the new 2020 HealthFocus International Kitchen Medicine Report. And it is the younger shoppers that are fueling this growth. They are also interested in the soil and the drivers of the regenerative agriculture. 

The agriculture spectrum has certified regenerative organic farming—the cream of the crop—on the left side of the continuum and conventional agribusiness on the right. Less than 1% of U.S. farms are certified organic and even less are certified regenerative organic. Every improvement away from the right to the left side of the spectrum is a step in the correct direction for our soil. 

This week the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy unveiled the Net Zero Initiative, an industry-wide effort that will help U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies implement new technologies and adopt economically viable practices. This is the initiative that CFI's Arnot refers to.

The initiative is a critical component of U.S. dairy’s environmental stewardship goals, endorsed by dairy industry leaders and farmers, to achieve carbon neutrality, optimized water usage and improved water quality by 2050. This message needs to get to consumers!

“The U.S. dairy community has been working together to provide the world with responsibly produced, nutritious dairy foods,” said Mike Haddad, chairman, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “With the entire dairy community at the table--from farmers and cooperatives to processors, household brands and retailers--we’re leveraging U.S. dairy’s innovation, diversity and scale to drive continued environmental progress and create a more sustainable planet for future generations.”   

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy also announced a key milestone on its journey toward carbon neutrality: an up to $10 million commitment and multi-year partnership with Nestlé to support the Net Zero Initiative and scale access to environmental practices and resources on farms across the country. 

“Supporting and enabling farmers through the Net Zero Initiative has the potential to transform the dairy industry,” said Jim Wells, chief supply chain officer for Nestlé USA. “Scaling up climate-smart agricultural initiatives is key to Nestlé’s ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and will help reduce the carbon footprint of many of our brands. We are excited to collaborate with U.S. dairy and our suppliers to contribute to an even more sustainable dairy supply chain.” 

Nestlé is the first of what the U.S. dairy community hopes will be many partners joining the Net Zero Initiative, contributing funding and expertise to help propel the entire industry’s progress toward a more sustainable future. To learn more, link HERE.

Jay Watson, sourcing sustainability engagement manager at General Mills, sums these efforts up well. 

“We believe that regenerative agriculture is an opportunity for both conventional and organic, and everything in between,” said Watson. ““It’s the right thing to do.”


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