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What we can learn about #buttergate from New Zealand’s experience with palm kernel

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Opinion

By Meagan Murdoch

In early February, Calgary-based cookbook creator Julie Van Rosendaal requested on social media whether or not anybody else had seen that butter is now not smooth at room temperature. Her query helped spark a nationwide and worldwide dialog about Canadian butter.

To some it most likely appeared like a light-hearted conundrum in opposition to the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic. However to dairy farmers, it’s been a fierce judgement of their federally-approved use of palm oil in animal feed.

With the mud considerably settled, it’s value contemplating New Zealand’s strategy in a really related state of affairs and the way it efficiently prevented its personal Buttergate.

First, a easy Google search will inform you that using palm merchandise in dairy cow feed isn’t solely permitted but in addition fairly frequent worldwide. Many international locations equivalent to New Zealand and Australia use palm kernel expeller (PKE) — the meal left over after the manufacturing of palm oil. Palm oil is probably the most consumed oil on the planet and one that’s utilized in every thing from cooking to cosmetics.

Dairy powerhouse New Zealand has earned its prime international rating due to its sustainable pasture-based system the place cows graze freely on lush inexperienced pastures the higher a part of the 12 months. Nonetheless, the standard and vitamins derived from pasture naturally modifications over the course of the season and surprising floods and droughts imply supplemental feeds, equivalent to PKE, brassicas, molasses, and maize (corn) are wanted to make sure cows at all times get the correct quantity of power and protein.

Whereas the talk over using palm kernel had been brewing in New Zealand for a while, it was largely pushed by Greenpeace and academia over the related environmental impacts. PKE is primarily sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia, the place the profitable tree and lax regulation has prompted huge deforestation that has disrupted the ecosystem and displaced the orangutan. This has led to the event of a sturdy traceability system to assist supply extra sustainable palm merchandise, but it surely has by no means raised the ire sufficient to warrant a ban.

In 2015, Fonterra requested dairy farmers to look at a tenet of three kilograms most of PKE per cow per day. Fonterra’s rationale was that they wished to future-proof the pasture-based model. This request took the dairy business without warning and with out a clear rationale and knowledge to again up the request, farmers weren’t satisfied to make modifications. In 2017, Fonterra defined to farmers that PKE was having an influence on the manufacturing course of and that they might quickly introduce a transparent, science-based requirement. Whereas they weren’t pleased about it, the potential influence on shopper merchandise resonated with farmers.

A 12 months later, a fast on-tanker milk testing program was launched. Farmers obtained a each day Fats Analysis Index (FEI) of their milk —basically a rating reflecting the milk’s fats composition. This enabled farmers to know the impacts of palm kernel and adapt their practices accordingly.

Whereas it’s nonetheless unclear whether or not palm oil is the only wrongdoer of Canada’s exhausting butter, many are asking why it took Canadian shoppers to note the change earlier than the difficulty was addressed? Farmers did their greatest to quell considerations of shoppers on social media over the previous month talking authoritatively about animal welfare, feeding practices, and sustainability, however they wanted extra speedy reinforcement on the particular difficulty of product high quality.

Whereas New Zealand has roughly the identical variety of dairy farms, its business for all intents and functions is led by Fonterra, a co-operative owned by 10,000 farming households that produce the lion’s share of the nation’s milk. Regardless of Canada’s very organized provide administration system, the business is damaged up in a number of methods — by province, era, dimension of farm, and by function inside the provide chain.

There may be additionally a long-held respect for and understanding that what occurs behind the farmgate is the farmer’s duty and prerogative. That is no totally different in Canada than it’s in New Zealand. In each international locations, there’s a clear want for data sharing throughout the availability chain.

So the place do we go from right here? Farmers want clear science-based data to again modifications on farm. Those that have undertaken analysis on this area ought to work collaboratively with farmers and the broader business to search out options.

When farmers in New Zealand have been requested to reign of their use of palm kernel, Fonterra teamed up with the nationwide dairy farmer affiliation, feed suppliers, and veterinarians to elucidate the downstream results of feed and supply mitigation methods to farmers. And if modifications are thought-about, farmers will want time to adapt. Fonterra step by step launched a milk testing program, enabling farmers to see how particular person feed practices impacted milk high quality and to regulate earlier than penalties have been utilized to exploit that didn’t meet the brand new requirement.

By way of a farmer-elected board, cross-country subject staff, farmer smart-phone app and web site, and direct emails from administration, Fonterra works in shut partnership with farmers on a spread of points to make sure the perfect final result for the tip shopper.

The structural variations of New Zealand’s dairy business and Canada’s provide administration system ought to be famous, however when conditions like this happen, clear, early, and direct communication throughout the availability chain is required.

The belief of the patron, and belief inside the provide chain, has been broken. The query now’s, how do we rebuild that belief, learn from Buttergate, and what modifications can we make at the moment to keep away from the subsequent one?

— Meagan Murdoch is a Director at NATIONAL Public Relations with an experience in agriculture. Earlier than becoming a member of NATIONAL in 2020, Meagan suggested Fonterra Co-operative Ltd., one of many world’s largest dairy exporters and processors. Meagan was additionally Director of Communications within the Harper Authorities, together with to Agriculture and Agri-Meals Minister Gerry Ritz.

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