Every June, we highlight natural dairy products and producers during National Dairy Month. This year's celebrations are particularly important because of a new GMO antagonist: synbio non-animal dairy proteins.
Synbio dairy proteins are made using synthetic biology, which generally exploits genetically modified microorganisms to produce novel compounds. Synthetic biology is just one part of the biotech industry's push towards an increasingly unnatural, engineered food system reliant on patents and corporate control.
Of course, genetic engineering isn't the only path to innovation. One farm at a time, natural dairy producers are combining age-old strategies with cutting-edge infrastructure to adapt to — and even mitigate — the climate crisis, proving that cows can be part of a comprehensive regenerative strategy with incalculable benefits.
Here are the top 5 ways natural dairy leaves synthetic biology in the dirt:
1. Nature's first fertilizer
Rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers made with and transported using fossil fuels, regenerative dairy operations treat and repurpose cow waste solids to feed the soil. This is the oldest form of nutrient cycling, and ruminants are the stars of the show. It's also a valuable example of circular resource use, in which products that are generally regarded as waste are integrated on-farm to boost productivity and reduce externalities.
2. Renewable energy: the other gas
Much of dairy farming's climate impact comes from methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced through a cow's digestion. At Straus Family Creamery, innovative thinkers have turned that minus into a plus. The Straus team installed a methane digester to convert the gas into usable energy. In fact, according to a 2020 Sustainability Report, "the methane digester provides enough renewable energy to power the entire dairy farm, charge [founder and CEO] Albert Straus’ electric car and other farm vehicles."
3. Rotational grazing 'til the cows come home
Did you know properly managed cattle can help regenerate grasslands and sink carbon into the soil where it belongs? At Alexandre Family Farms, cows are moved around the acreage in a cycle of grazing, pooping and restoration. After 30 years of rotational grazing, soil carbon has increased dramatically, supporting a variety of ecosystem services and producing better forage for the cows.
4. Less water and cleaner water
Soil health is a critical part of regenerative farming — and what benefits soil also benefits water! Building healthy soil increases its water-holding capacity with dramatically improved performance during periods of drought and lessens the need for irrigation. Rich soil offers better filtration as water moves through it by maintaining moisture and keeping valuable nutrients on the farm for longer.
5. Beyond milk: ecosystem management
Regenerative farming lends itself to restructuring in ways that synbio doesn't. The deeper we dive into using and restoring resources, the more farming becomes about ecosystem management rather than just producing a commodity. A holistically managed system is more complex and delivers layers of benefits.
Ultimately, explorers are going to explore — and dairy farmers seeking ways to improve their systems are no different. What started on the farm expands beyond the horizon, diverting waste from landfills, sourcing reusable packaging or finding creative ways to bolster the local economy. Meanwhile, synbio remains inherently extractive, reinforcing patented technology, corporate power structures and GMOs.
At its height, synbio's environmental claims rest on doing less harm (though exactly how much less is uncertain), but that simply isn't enough. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must rebuild ecosystems and restore planetary health. Regeneration is essential for future generations' food security and investing in natural and nourishing food is top of mind for shoppers and farmers alike.
"Consumers want to make purchases based on their values, and farmers want to farm to their values…. This grassroots approach is driving so much change," said Chris Kerston, leader of the certification program Land to Market, in an interview with Civil Eats.
As this movement gains momentum, every dairy farm that develops a climate-positive plan becomes a resource for other farmers. That's some serious innovation.