Sustainability in the South African Dairy Industry – a project by MilkSA

ReStory Narrators: Heinz Meissner and Colin Ohlhoff

Globally, there are efforts toward sustainability, with the dairy industry being no exception. The FAO-IDF Dairy Declaration of Rotterdam (DDoR) and the Dairy Sustainability Framework (DSF) both endorse the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and provides guidelines for sustainable development.

Jay Fuhrer is one of the fathers of Conservation Agriculture in America.
Craig Galloway of Trace & Save working in Conservation Agriculture with dairy farmers.

South Africa is a country with a rich endowment of natural resources, which include its biodiversity and ecosystems. The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) is responsible to fulfil the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). With the adoption of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, the NBSAP has outlined a path to ensure that the management of biodiversity assets and ecological infrastructure continue to support South Africa’s development path and play an important role in underpinning the economy. As the demand for agricultural products has increased, driven by the nutritional needs of a growing population, the importance of developing a biodiversity-based agricultural system to ensure future sustainability should be regarded as a key driver for the Industry. Dairy farms across South Africa have widely undertaken (although still not always to a formal extent, especially among smaller-scale farmers) to integrate biodiversity- conscious approaches in their businesses. The vast costs involved in repairing damaged soils are understood and therefore the benefits in monitoring soil health, structure, nutrients and biological activity are recognised. In general, therefore, the dairy industry supports the vision and strategies of the NBSAP.

The dairy industry is one of the most deregulated industries in the world. The industry is not subject to any statutory intervention in the production and marketing of its products aimed at managing or influencing the supply and demand of unprocessed milk and dairy products, and it is not supported by government subsidies. A totally free and competitive dairy market prevails which creates a very dynamic industry that continuously adapts to the changing needs of consumers and industrial users. However, this results in other challenges which require sophisticated and continuous analyses of market signals and the collection of information, also from consumers. Consumers and dieticians are also trained and informed through a Consumer Education Project which has received accolades by the International Dairy Federation (IDF). Various important markets have been identified with the potential of serving as trading partners, with the Sub-Sahara African market perhaps being the most prominent, especially as an export market.

In the South African dairy industry, since 1990, the number of cows has declined by 24 % while total milk production has increased by 56 %. Measurements show that GHG emissions of dairy cattle is 10% of the ca 30 000 Gg CO2 eq/annum for all livestock in the country and 1.3 to 1.5 kg CO2 eq/kg milk, which compares favourably with prominent dairy producing countries. This implies that efficiency has improved, and GHG emissions, waste and water use per unit product have declined.

A more effective way of reducing GHG, however, is to sequester atmospheric CO2 into soils which can be achieved with regenerative and conservation driven agriculture methods. These methods can also improve soil quality and carbon stocks substantially. In an experiment on soil analysis from Swellendam to Humansdorp, soils from kikuyu-ryegrass systems and shallow tilled soils recorded carbon contents of 50.3 kg C/m3 and 54.3 kg C/m3 respectively, vs only 34.6 kg C/m3 for deep tilled (conventional) soils. In the Tsitsikamma it has been shown that carbon sequestration can nullify GHG emissions although much work is still required on many farms. Healthy soils support proliferation of soil microbes and nutrient cycling, in turn supporting sustainable production and reduced costs associated with fertiliser application. If soil health is also improved, turnover will increase and more NH4 –N which results from chemical fertiliser, and otherwise will be converted into the GHG N2O, can be used to the benefit of plant growth. It should be noted that the variation from farm to farm is substantial, which suggests that further input into research, extension and training is required.

Waste is of concern from pre-farm gate through to dairy processing plants. Most dairy farms have waste disposal and sewage systems that allow them to use the solids as fertilisers and the water either in irrigation or to recycle for cleaning. Some of the large dairy processing companies have waste reduction and water cleaning operations, some of which generate CH4 for electricity generation, whilst the purified water is recycled for cleaning operations. The best route for disposal or reuse of industrial waste depends on specific characteristics of the waste stream. In recent years there has been development in the ability of dairy processors to collect and harness the economic value of various waste streams, which ultimately also drives more environmentally sound methods of disposal. The threat which plastic pollution poses to the environment remains a topic of concern. South Africa is fortunate in that it has a fairly robust plastic recycling industry which contributes to the ability of dairy operations to divert this form of solid waste from landfill disposal sites.

Flood washing thoroughly cleans the stall after milking without electricity.
Mixed pasture in the Tsitsikamma region.

Water is a finite and vulnerable resource and must be dealt with responsibly, both as it applies to quantity and quality. Recent developments and initiatives around water in the South African Dairy Sector are steadily contributing towards creating a culture of circularity and sustainability. A water stewardship program has been introduced by the MPO in collaboration with the WWF-SA, encouraging innovative initiatives in water management, ecosystem protection, recycling, and effluent treatment in dairy factories.

In rural development the core emphasis is to promote competitive, profitable, and sustainable existing black and new enterprises by contributing to the reduction of commercial venture constraints. The initiative is aligned with the South African developmental priorities, namely food security, poverty reduction, promoting equitable economic transformation and contributing to general economic development and growth. Skills and knowledge development are supported by Milk SA to ensure the continuation of an appropriate skills and knowledge dispensation. In the context of rural economy development, Milk SA’s Skills & Knowledge Development Program supports training at new and black-owned dairy enterprises. However, the rural dairy economy is not only supported by the organised dairy industry through Milk SA, but also by several provincial departments associated with agriculture which drives entrepreneurial programs and training. There is a need to measure the impact of training in the formal and informal markets. This coincides with a need to measure the impact of subsistence/smallholder dairy farming on the rural economy. Such an initiative could provide a measure of success of general empowerment.

The South African Dairy Industry has recorded significant progress in most of the sustainability goals as defined in the Dairy Declaration of Rotterdam and the Dairy Sustainability Framework, particularly as it applies to the environment. It should be recognised that this is an endeavour which requires continuous attention through research, monitoring and training, and ultimately adoption by all role players across the dairy value-chain in the country. Several programs, which are either existing or in various phases of development, and which align to the sustainability goals, have therefore been documented.

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