GW looks to partner with sustainable Turkish dairy farm

When University President Steven Knapp went to Turkey earlier this month, he brought back an unexpected souvenir – a potential partnership with a sustainable dairy farm.

Knapp said officials were considering a partnership with Sütaş, a dairy company in Bursa, Turkey, which could help GW reach some of its lofty sustainability goals. The University has increasingly focused on sustainability under Knapp.

“It will mesh nicely with what we’re doing in sustainability,” Knapp said. “You’ve got to constantly be thinking strategically.”

University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt declined to provide more information about the potential partnership or when it would begin. Sütaş “aims to share the goodness and natural flavor from milk, a journey of awareness of social responsibility,” according to its website.

Sustainability director Kathleen Merrigan, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary, said she has made trips to Istanbul and is looking forward to working with Turkish companies more in the future. The Sütaş partnership would be one of Merrigan’s first major projects at the University, after joining the sustainability office in February.

“As an ‘aggie’ with a lot of history in dairy policy, I’m always thrilled to talk about farming and what it takes to get food to our tables, both here in the U.S. and around the world,” Merrigan said.

But GW’s potential partner corporation also comes with a murky history. In September, Sütaş employees claimed they were facing intimidation and being treated inhumanely by management after more than 80 employees were fired when they joined a workers union.

When Sütaş employees picketed a factory, management dumped 13 tons of liquid manure on the group, which eventually “Attracted flies onto the dairy plant and compromised food safety,” according to a report from the International Union of Food Workers. A Sütaş factory owner stepped down following the incident.

As sustainability becomes a buzzword in higher education, schools are increasingly partnering with sustainability-focused corporations, said Kelly Gilkerson, the associate coordinator of sustainable agriculture programs at Clemson University.

Those partnerships are still rare between U.S. schools and international corporations, Gilkerson said.

“GW could be pioneering a new kind of relationship in sustainability,” Gilkerson said.

Bradley Heins, an assistant professor of organic dairy production at the University of Minnesota, said partnerships across borders can help students and faculty study how production differs by country.

“Maybe they have ways that could work here in the U.S. in Turkey and maybe they can borrow an idea from the U.S. that can help them produce sustainable food,” Heins said.

Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.

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