Sustainability in the dairy industry

By Izak Hofmeyr, Plaas Media

The overall goal of the dairy industry worldwide is to produce healthy and nutritious food in an economically, socially and environmentally friendly manner.

The South African dairy industry is a member of the International Dairy Federation (IDF) and endorses the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) and the ISF’s Dairy Declaration of Rotterdam (DDoR) which was signed in 2016. This declaration followed the signing in 2015 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development during the UN General Assembly. A total number of 17 sustainable development goals were formulated in the process.

This event represents the unanimous commitment of all 193 UN member countries to end poverty and inequality and protect the planet by 2030. The DDoR is therefore a unique partnership between the FAO and the international dairy industry that combines the dairy industry’s role in the production of healthy food with a commitment to sustainable development in the dairy industry. This is to the benefit of the planet and its people. 

Local sustainability

It is within this context that Milk SA’s research and development programme manager, Dr. Heinz Meissner, in collaboration with Dr Colin Ohloff, Milk SA’s official responsible for environmental sustainability, has drawn up a report that is updated every six months.

The report focuses on four specific aspects of sustainability in the local dairy industry, namely:

  • Environmental integrity regarding greenhouse emissions, soil health and fertilisation, waste management, water quality and quantity, and biodiversity.
  • Socio-economic aspects regarding market development, rural stability and farmworker conditions.
  • Dairy product quality and safety.
  • Animal care.

These are important long-term elements that will determine the sustainability of the industry and should therefore be taken note of.

Control of greenhouse emissions

The greenhouse gases relevant to the agricultural industry are mainly methane gas and nitrous oxide. Methane gas is emitted through rumen fermentation and manure, whereas nitrous oxide comes from chemical nitrogen fertilisation. 

Methane gas formation in cattle can be reduced through ration manipulation and the improvement of effective milk production. While the number of dairy cows in South Africa has decreased by 24% since 1990, milk production increased by 56%. This would imply that efficiency has improved while greenhouse gases, as well as waste and water consumption per product unit, have decreased.

Soil quality and nutrients

Nutrient availability is an important component of soil health (quality). Greenhouse gas emissions can be significantly reduced through the efficient absorption of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) from the atmosphere by applying agricultural conservation techniques. These principles can also improve soil quality and increase carbon levels in soil. Healthy soil supports the distribution of soil microbes as well as the circulation of nutrients, which in turn promote sustainability and can potentially reduce fertiliser applications and costs. 

Soil in South Africa is generally quite degraded and lacks nutrients in the right quantities and proportions. This should be addressed by producers to ensure sustained, productive vegetative growth.

Waste management

Without question, this aspect should be addressed by everyone in the industry, but specifically the secondary industry. Over time, waste has a cumulative effect that is to the detriment of health and production. South Africa has a relatively good track record in this regard.

The government is in the process of proposing stricter regulations under the banner of extended producer responsibility (EPR). Hopefully, this will encourage producers to use packaging material that can be better recycled.

Responsible water management

The responsible management of water cannot be emphasised enough. South Africa is a water-scarce country and in addition, water quality is deteriorating due to neglected maintenance by relevant authorities. Consequently, the industry has to personally take responsibility to ensure sustainable water supply through, among others, purification and reuse.

The Nedbank/Milk Producers Organisation (MPO)/World Wildlife Fund (WWF) water stewardship programmes serve as a good example of the emphasis industry places on this process. Another example is the research and development programme of the Institute for National Resources (INR)/WWF/Confluent, funded by Milk SA. Several milk processing companies are setting excellent examples.


Although biodiversity is not always viewed as an aspect of direct importance to profitability, long-term sustainability depends on a combination of diverse plant species and soil microbe populations on a farm. It increases the ability to better withstand negative factors such as climate change, fires and pollution, and increases productivity. Biodiversity is enhanced by applying agricultural conservation principles.

The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) is tasked with implementing the objectives set by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) with its secretariat in Montreal, Canada. By adopting the CBD’s strategic plan for biodiversity, the NBSAP has secured a way to ensure that proper management of our biodiversity assets and ecological infrastructure will continue to support South Africa’s development path.

Most dairy farms across the country attempt to incorporate biodiversity principles into their businesses. The dairy industry supports the vision and strategies of the NBSAP.

Market development

Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency, and the market will be largely dependent on how effectively consumer objections and concerns are addressed in the future. Along with this, new markets must be explored continuously and new products developed.

The South African dairy industry is one of the most deregulated industries in the world, resulting in a highly competitive and dynamic industry. Consequently, challenges ensue that require sophisticated and continuous market analyses. Milk SA’s Consumer Education Programme, purposed to train both consumers and dietitians, is highly regarded by the ISF. Several important markets have been identified as potential trading partners, sub-Saharan Africa probably being the most important, especially as an export destination.

Rural economies

The dairy industry actively contributes to the economic sustainability of rural communities. The industry has an obvious responsibility to uplift, train, mentor and promote stability in rural communities.

The value of milk production as a stimulus in the development of rural areas should not be underestimated, especially with regard to the provision of infrastructure, electricity and service delivery. Milk SA’s initiatives correspond with South Africa’s development priorities namely food security, poverty alleviation, economic transformation, and economic development. 

In this context, Milk SA’s skills and knowledge development programme supports training at new black-owned dairy enterprises.

Working conditions

Working conditions are thoroughly addressed in legislation and the industry is largely compliant with the stated requirements.

Industry employers should commit to complying with the following principles if they are not already doing so:

  • Conditions of fair labour practices.
  • Employee unemployment benefits.
  • Skills development of employees.
  • Provision for death and disability that result from work activities.
  • Recognition of the rights of hired labourers and farm dwellers.
  • Provision of recreational facilities on the farm.
  • Participation in initiatives aimed at developing a sustainable local economy.

Quality and safety of product

This is probably the most important factor affecting sustainability – integrity, quality and safety must not be compromised. In terms of product quality and safety, Milk SA’s initiatives are carried out by the Dairy Standard Agency (DSA). The DSA monitors procedures at milk processing plants to ensure compliance with food safety standards.

The DSA has the capacity to:

  • Maintain milk and dairy product monitoring programmes.
  • Launch rehabilitation programmes for individuals or companies who frequently don’t comply with legal standards.
  • Identify non-compliance in the industry.
  • Maintain an effective communication programme with all relevant stakeholders.

Animal Care

Numerous activists as well as the media are focussing on animal care, but this is not the only reason why this aspect should receive increased attention. Producers must take care of their animals as if they were pets; well-cared-for animals are healthy and productive animals.

Optimal animal welfare is characterised by an animal that is healthy, comfortable, safe and properly fed from a scientific and farming perspective. The animal should be able to express its natural, species-specific behaviour without negative consequences such as pain, fear or stress. This requires, among others, disease prevention and medical treatment, appropriate shelter, good nutrition, safe transport, and ultimately humane slaughtering practices.

The industry, in collaboration with the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) has formulated an official national standard guideline document (SA National Standard: The welfare of dairy cattle guideline document) and is also in the process of developing a farm audit procedure which is funded by Milk SA.

Final thoughts

The success of the dairy industry depends on a healthy value chain in which trust and transparency are apparent throughout. Certain shared responsibilities must be addressed by the whole industry by means of representing organisations namely Milk SA, the MPO, the South African Milk Processors Organization (Sampro) and the DSA.

The sustainability of the industry will increasingly be tested based on the extent to which the elements of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are met.

For more information regarding Milk SA’s projects,
contact Dr. Heinz Meissner at email
or visit

For more information regarding the Dairy Standard Agency,
contact Jompie Burger at 
or visit the website at 


Related Articles

DSA Lab Services: The real test of quality

By on 26 July 2023
The promotion of quality milk and dairy products is extremely important, as inferior quality products can be catastrophic to the South African dairy i...

Read more

RECORDING | Get to know DSA better while exploring what’s new on the dairy regulatory front

By Food Focus on 21 February 2022
VIEW THE RECORDING | The DSA needs no formal introduction, but how well do you know this company and the major role it plays in the dairy industry? Th...

Read more

WEBINAR | DSA Introduction to dairy labelling

By Dairy Standard Agency on 02 September 2020
This webinar will introduce the improved DSA labelling guideline that provides a user friendly and integrated platform for the interpretation of the l...

Read more