Milk perspectives

How sustainable is milk production at the farms? Consumers, retailers and industry have been asking this question more and more frequently in recent years. The sustainability module milk allows dairies and the farmers who supply them, for the first time, to present a resilient answer. Facts and details on the pilot project.

For quite some time now, larger and internationally operating dairy companies have established their own programmes for sustainable milk production. However, there was no industry-spanning, comprehensive, and at the same time practical solution, for all dairies in Germany.  While the QM Milk scheme has provided reliably high-quality products and safety standards in milk production since 2003, QM Milk has only dealt in part with standard questions on sustainability.

The new sustainability module is closing this gap. This represents a huge step for the milk industry towards more compatibility, resource efficiency and transparency. Processors, the retail trade, consumers and NGOs including animal welfare associations at national and international levels are interested in learning about how animals are kept at the farms and how the natural resources such as soil and biodiversity are handled. “It is important to show that the German dairy industry is facing up to this challenge,” says agricultural expert Heike Kuhnert from the project office, Land und Markt, which in cooperation with the Thünen Institute has developed the concept of the sustainability module.  

Criteria with evaluation approaches

The sustainability module comprises several questions targeted at milk-producing farmers. The questions come from the fields of ecology, economy, animal welfare and social issues. For example: What is the ratio between the number of cows and the number of existing lying and feeding places? How satisfied have you been with the economic situation over the last three years?  What is the percentage of extensively farmed grassland amongst permanent grassland? How much has the farm invested in the modernisation of milk production within the last five years? The criteria catalogue of the pilot project phase covered around 84 criteria; most of these required ticking and data input, but there were also some free text fields. There will be some modifications to the content for the second project phase, which is scheduled to start mid-2020.

Milk-producing farmers answer the questions on their own, often based on existing documentation. The questionnaires can be filled in on paper or online. A web-based database supports systematic data collection and evaluation. In principle, this module is intended to be a voluntary self-assessment. The module predominantly aims at creating transparency and starting a continuous learning and development process within the industry. Privacy and anonymity of the individual companies has high priority. The use of data follows strict contractually agreed rules.

See also: Expert panel and discussion on the sustainability module

Industry-wide comparable data

The central element of the module is a system that evaluates the answers of the farmers. The information is assessed on a four-point scale: especially good, good, sufficient and unfavourable. This classification of performance aims at illustrating the possible strengths and weaknesses of the respective companies and farmers compared to other farms and at encouraging further development. To this end, the participants receive individual results reports, so-called benchmarks. In these reports, the results of their own farm are compared to the results of all milk producers in the survey.

This is the first time that dairies have received systematic information that is relevant to sustainability from their milk suppliers. This will enable the dairies to inform their customers and also the public in an anonymous manner about the sustainability aspects of their milk production. Dairies and milk producers can also jointly analyse their identified strengths and weaknesses, and thus develop ways for improvements.

The project team recommends that the participating dairies enter into an internal dialogue to analyse the results. For cooperatives, for example, it would be appropriate to use existing bodies or regional groups for this dialogue and then expand the circles. Within this setting, dairies and farmers can discuss how they perceive the overall results of the survey, which development goals would make sense and which improvement measures can be considered and should be implemented.

The future of the sustainability module

The sustainability module should also be further developed. Before it entered the second round, several workshops were held in 2019 to evaluate the module of the first project phase. An initial interim balance was drawn up and the project team analysed which elements were missing or which may be less important in view of other criteria systems.  Furthermore, the project team is also working on ensuring the international compatibility of the sustainability module: “Our goal is that the large international food companies recognise our module as an industry solution,” explains Heike Kuhnert.

This is another reason why the project team is in contact with representatives of the SAI Dairy Working Group. The companies of Nestlé, Unilever and Danone founded the SAI Platform in 2002. As of now, the initiative has around 90 members, mainly industrial food companies and retail chains that share a common interest in sustainable agriculture, according to SAI. Within this initiative, the Dairy Working Group focuses on milk and cooperates closely with the Dairy Sustainability Framework (DSF), an association of the international dairy industry. The DSF is currently developing measurement concepts for eleven key criteria (Global Criteria), including greenhouse gas emissions, nutrients and water.

The project team for the milk sustainability module has compared the current status of the eleven DSF criteria with the sustainability module. It became clear that both criteria catalogues harmonise well with each other. To some extent there are minor differences and a different weighting of certain topics. Waste, for example, is an aspect for the DSF, whereas animal welfare is much more prevalent in the sustainability module. The compatibility with international sustainability criteria shall ensure that the German dairy industry will continue to be accepted as a supplier to the globally active food industry and trade companies.

Development and chronology of the sustainability module

Intensive industry exchange

In several workshops and with project teams, the criteria and the assessment system of the module were scientifically defined, discussed and agreed upon.  Between April 2015 and February 2016, the intensive work schedule and dialogue process - headed by Prof. Dr. Nieberg of the Thünen Institute - took place with the involvement of many different stakeholders: dairies, dairy farms, professional associations, environmentalists, animal welfare campaigners, scientists, the food trade and food industry; sometimes with their completely different ideas and points of view. In mid-2016 the theoretical concept of the modules was drafted. QM Milk e.V. financially supports this process.

Also on board: Science

The sustainability module milk is a joint project of science and practice. The association QM Milch e.V., which defines and verifies the quality standards for milk production in Germany, with its supporting associations Milchindustrieverband, Raiffeisenverband and Deutscher Bauernverband, as well as the project office Land und Markt and the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics are involved in this project. The Thünen Institute controls the drafting and further development of the module and provides scientific expertise for the project.

Time period: 2017 – 2020

The practical implementation of the first project phase began in 2017: 34 dairies and their farmers started applying the module at the farm level, including the Uelzena Group. Nationwide implementation was designed as a three-year pilot project, finishing in June 2020. The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture financially supported the project based on a resolution of the German Federal Parliament. By mid-2020, data from almost 7500 milk producers had been entered in the evaluations. Since most of these milk producers are located in northwest Germany, the evaluations are not yet representative of the entire country. The nationwide results were collected and evaluated in 2020. A final evaluation was carried out explicitly for the Uelzena Group, giving the first findings from which recommended actions can be derived.

Time period: 2020 – 2023

The sustainability module milk started its second project phase in mid-2020 and is scheduled for a further three years. The Thünen Institute and QM Milch e.V. are once again project partners of the follow-up project, providing support when it comes to data management, and processing and evaluating the results. They are also responsible for the entire project organisation, coordination and communication. A total of 27 dairies and milk-producing organisations will be taking part nationwide. The participating dairy companies are using their own funds to finance the follow-up project in accordance with a developed financing model.

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