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  • Nicholas Carter

Living Report: Dairy's Impact on the Environment

Updated: Jan 2

A review of the state of the dairy's impacts on the planet


The Coronado Dairy on Kansas Settlement Road in the southeast corner of Arizona. Riverview LLP, a Minnesota-based dairy, has been buying up land and drilling new wells to grow feed for its cattle | Lucas Foglia



Top 5 Facts About Dairy:


1. Dairy uses around 10x as much land as plant based alternatives


2. Dairy uses up to 20x as much freshwater as plant based alternatives

*'Reducing dairy' - Based on Eat-Lancet Planetary Health Diet reduction target.


3. Dairy causes at least 3x as much greenhouse gas emissions as plant based alternatives


4. Thirteen of the world’s largest dairy corporations combined emit more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than major polluters such as BHP (the Australia-based mining, oil and gas giant) or ConocoPhillips (the United States-based oil company) (based on 2017 figures - Source).



5. The livestock sector, including the dairy industry, is the largest major driver of habitat loss, ecological degradation, species decline, and extinction globally (Source | Source | Source)



 

State of Dairy Globally


There are over 270 million dairy cows producing milk around the world. Typically, richer countries like the United States, Canada, Australia have increased production of dairy milk through more confinement, strict feed schedules to maximize milk, and some genetic progress. That said, it looks like environmental improvements here are at their max as significant more antibiotics are required for sick cows in confinement. There is strict laws in most countries to dump the milk when antibiotics were administered by the farmers, but there’s been countless fines when they were caught not doing this.


Big Dairy

Thirteen of the world’s largest dairy corporations combined to emit more greenhouse gases (GHGs) in 2017 than major polluters BHP, the Australia-based mining, oil and gas giant or ConocoPhillips, the United States-based oil company.

The total combined emissions of the largest dairy corporations rose by 11% in just two years (2015-2017) - some as much as 30% over those 2 years. None of these companies are required by law to publish or verify their climate emissions or present plans to help limit global warming to 1.5˚C. Fewer than half of these companies are publishing their emissions. Zero out of the top 13 have committed to a clear and absolute reduction of emissions from their dairy supply chains or emissions from the animals themselves (Report: Milking the Planet, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)


Dairy's Environmental Impacts:

  • Greenhouse Gases: Although dairy production in many rich countries has become more efficient through intensification, it still has significantly higher impacts than plant-based alternatives across all metrics. It causes at least 3x as much greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based milks.

  • Land: Dairy uses around 10x as much land as plant-based milks;

Undoubtedly, plant proteins use by far the least amount of land: Animal products use 83% of all agricultural land, but inefficiently, only provide back 18% of global food calories (or 37% of global protein)
  • Biodiversity: "The livestock sector is currently the single major driver of habitat loss and degradation, which is in its turn a leading cause of species decline and extinction worldwide." Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation

  • "The multiple, synergetic, and ubiquitous past and present processes by which human carnivory threatens the world's biodiversity makes it arguably the most detrimental aspect of our ecology, from a conservation point-of-view." Science of the Total Environment

  • Water Use: Agriculture is responsible for about 85% of global freshwater withdrawals.

  • As shown in this study in the journal Global Environmental Change, the more one shifts to a fully plant-based diet, the less water is used.

  • Dairy uses up to 20x as much freshwater as plant milks

  • It takes 1000 litres of water to produce only 1 litre of milk

  • It takes 4750 litres of water to produce 1 kg of milk powder

  • It takes 5060 litres of water to produce 1kg of cheese

  • The Water Footprint Network

  • Water Pollution: Manure/Fertilizers and associated runoff causing dead zones

  • Countless examples of rivers and other waterways polluted beyond repair close to dairy farms, mostly from manure runoff creating dead zones.

Where do the world's crops go?

Only 6% of soy grown goes to human food
  • 81% of soy processing is in the form of cake. 99% of that goes to farmed animals.

  • Soy is not the inherent problem. Being a legume, it has the ability to biologically fix its own nitrogen, grow on poor soils, and rely on very little fertiliser inputs.

  • There's also very regenerative ways to grow it without synthetic fertilizers.


Regional Trends:

  • U.S.: More than 93% of family farms have closed since the 1970s. Yet, overall dairy production in the U.S. continues to rise due to new or expanding mega-dairies

  • In the U.S., food service and institutional purchases for schools, hospitals and the like account for about 30% of milk sales. With the covid shutdowns, dairy farmers poured milk down drains as the virus came on the heels of a debilitating six-year dairy price crash. In one week, as much as 7% of all milk produced in the U.S. was dumped, while milk processors encouraged farmers to dispose milk, cull herds or stop milking their cows earlier.

  • Increase in dairy production, decrease in herd sizes, and decrease in consumption for 4 decades straight. Plant-based meat is a rapidly growing category, with $1.4 billion in 2020 dollar sales, growing 45% since 2019 (GFI)

  • Canada: Dairy consumption in Canada is at a ten year low, and 66.22% of Canadian consumers are using soy, oat, or almond dairy alternatives, and the price of dairy has gone up 25% since January 2022.

  • EU: Four out of five dairy farms disappeared between 1981-2013. EU’s milk quota removal in 2015, along with other factors, contributed to the second global dairy crisis in 10 years.

  • New Zealand: Half of the country’s emissions come from the livestock sector, agricultural emissions having risen by 12% since 1990 with the doubling of its dairy herd and a 600% increase in fertilizer use. New Zealand exports 95% of its milk, largely through Fonterra, the world’s second largest dairy processor.

  • Fonterra accounts for ⅓ of all dairy exports worldwide

  • 2021 study by Jennifer Jacquet and others showed that if taking a full accounting of GHGs (scope 3 third party and exports) results show that including industrial meat and dairy producers’ full global emissions in national accounting would impact national targets for greenhouse gas reductions. As examples, by their calculations, two companies—Fonterra in New Zealand, and Nestlé in Switzerland—would make up more than 100% of their headquarter country’s total emissions target in the coming decade.

  • NZ: dairy cows produce as much manure as the excrement from 90 million people.

  • https://www.statista.com/statistics/974482/new-zealand-dairy-cattle-numbers/

  • UK: surveys suggest 1/4 of adults now drink some non-dairy milks (although not always exclusively). It’s even more popular in younger demographics with 1/3 of 16-23-year-olds opting for them.

  • Australia: Milk production in Australia in 2022 is forecast to decrease by over four percent to 8.6 million metric tons (MMT). The decrease in milk production is largely due farmers continuing to exit the dairy industry through farm sales and some dairy farms partially or fully transitioning to less labor-intensive beef cattle production. Per Capita consumption is projected to continue to decrease by about 1% over the next year.


Difference between conventional, organic, and regenerative dairy

  • Conventional dairy

  • Cows typically produce milk for about 10 months after giving birth. Dairy cows are often allowed to live for about four years before being slaughtered and sold for ground beef (their lifespan is at least 20 years)

  • More confinement and veterinarian treatment including antibiotics in most countries.

  • Selective feeding to meet nutrition requirements and maximize milk

  • On many dairy farms cows are always kept indoors.

  • Organic dairy:

  • Dairy cattle that produce organic milk are given some access to pasture; at least 30 per cent of their diet must come from grass.

  • When they don't pasture, they're given organic feed that is free of antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides and herbicides and genetically modified ingredients.

  • Regenerative dairy:

  • Very few even attempt to be regenerative certified in dairy, in whatever way people define it.

  • Alexandre Family Farm in Crescent City, California 35000 chickens, 8000 cows on 9000 acres cows on pasture after 5 months of age 100% grass but supplemented alfalfa hay. They add mix manure and culled chicken compost, fence off their land (rotational grazing). These farms still bring in off farm feed like organic grains to supplement growth.

The transition to pasture can lead to lowered milk production. In a confinement situation, all of the energy a cow consumes goes into making milk, while grazing cows expand energy walking and foraging.
  • Manure applications in regenerative grazing:

  • This global meta-analysis showed that it increases N2O by ~32% compared with mineral fertilizers. This further complicates this polarizing topic:

  • Stimulation of N2O emission by manure application to agricultural soils may largely offset carbon benefits: a global meta-analysis https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13648


Net Zero Strategies

  • New metric called GWP* which has some benefit as a tool to measure changing rates of methane emissions, but it poorly measures historical and current stock of methane.

  • This would put poor countries at a major disadvantage, and help high methane emitting countries like the US and New Zealand claim to be environmentally responsible despite only slight future decreases in methane.

  • Meanwhile, poor countries may simply be trying to meet their basic needs but get penalized for it.

  • Scientists behind this, Myles Allen and Michelle Cain and others should be upset their supposed tool to help address methane is being co-opted by the beef and dairy industry, and high emitting nations, as a way to skip significant reduction responsibilities. Why aren't they? And instead their presenting it to meat association forums.

  • The dairy industry promotes 'relative' rather than absolute decreases in emissions. This is one of many tactics they use to confuse consumers about their emissions. Relative decreases means that there are slightly less emissions per litre or milk but the amount of milk produced is increasing, total emissions increase.

No commercial dairy is or will be net zero without significant greenwashing or selective environmental impact accounting.

Anaerobic methane digesters

  • Inside a digester (essentially a large tarp over a lagoon), manure undergoes biochemical processes, similar to those occurring in lagoons, that convert organic matter in manure into biogas. Biogas is composed of 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide. The resulting biogas can be used to power vehicles, generate electricity, heat homes, or as renewable natural gas.

  • Putting a tarp over the huge amount of waste that comes from confined animal operations not only delays shifts away from animal agriculture (mostly through subsidized benefits to producers), but it delays needed energy decarbonization.

  • Of note, that manure was unnecessary in the first place, will still have issues of what to do with excess amounts (hopefully they dont leak into waterways), etc.

  • Is it better than a typical lagoon? Yes, but not once you consider that huge government funds are the only reason this tech is being installed.

  • Spill In North Carolina recently at a pig farm:

More than 4 Olympic-sized pools of manure & carcass foam spilled into nearby forests & wetlands, and only went reported 2 months after it began.
  • Ammonia levels in wells nearby were more than 12x higher than the allowable concentration.

  • While digesters capture some methane, it can increase the amount of ammonia, nitrate and nitrite (all forms of nitrogen) in the manure. The result leaves more concentrated ammonia and other forms of nitrogen in the leftover manure, which is then sprayed on neighboring fields. Nitrate pollution leads to algae blooms in waterways. Ammonia air pollution is associated with respiratory issues. A National Academy of Sciences study attributes 95 and 83 premature deaths in two counties with a high concentration of hog factory farms to fine particulate pollution, resulting from ammonia emissions. When ammonia oxidizes, it creates nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas.

  • Learn more: https://www.iatp.org/true-or-False-climate-solutions


Precision Fermentation: One of many clear solutions:

  • Dairy proteins from precision fermentation produce up to 97% less greenhouse gas emissions, up to 99% less water use

  • University of Helsinki VTT technical research centre of Finland

  • Of note: This is already being done, to a much smaller extend, with cheese today:

Today, 90 percent of cheese in the US market is made with rennet produced through precision fermentation.

- Nicholas Carter


Find more on dairy in our key study environmental reference list (keyword search 'dairy') and the library of full studies to read specific to dairy:


Dairy & GHGs | Dairy Environmental Impacts


 

Can Dairy be Regenerative? - with Ecologist Nicholas Carter | The Proof Podcast EP 230

0:00 Intro

2:22 What Causes Climate Change

7:06 Agriculture Today vs in the Past

11:28 Biodiversity Loss

17:26 Incentives for Sustainability

25:15 Cattle Grazing & Wildfires

28:40 Red Meat & Dairy

30:55 Global Dairy Production

36:03 Myths about Regenerative Agriculture

45:46 Comparing Sheep/Cow Milk

47:35 ‘Carbon Neutral’ Dairy

58:50 Milk Substitutions

1:06:36 Precision Fermentation

1:10:22 Diet for Planetary Health

1:16:23 Future of Food

1:22:12 Outro


Podcast References (roughly in order mentioned):


We will not achieve the Paris 1.5 degrees C climate goal without addressing animal agriculture (Science | The Lancet | Nature | PubMed )

“If the livestock sector were to continue with business as usual, this sector alone would account for 49% of the allowed emissions to keep warming to 1.5C by 2030.

Wider ecological impacts of animal agriculture beyond CO2:

  • 32-40% of annual human-caused methane (CH4) emissions come from animal agriculture.

  • United Nations Environment Programme and Climate and Clean Air Coalition (2021). Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

  • https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/


Biodiversity:

  • "The livestock sector is currently the single major driver of habitat loss and degradation, which is in its turn a leading cause of species decline and extinction worldwide."

  • Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation

  • The “past and present processes by which human carnivory threatens the world's biodiversity makes it arguably the most detrimental aspect of our ecology, from a conservation point-of-view."

  • Science of the Total Environment

The biomass distribution on Earth: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115

  • 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

  • https://ourworldindata.org/biodiversity-and-wildlife

Bison would have contributed to warming historically, but the other ecological benefits of them living in a biodiverse abundant wild ecosystem, with a mix of predators, bring all kinds of benefits:

Largest meta-analysis on our food system to date looking at over 38,000 farms in 119 countries representing 90% of all foods: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216

  • 83% of all agricultural land is used for animal agriculture.

  • Shifting entirely away from animal agriculture would free up more than 3 billion hectares of land, equivalent to the continent of Africa.

  • As covered here as well: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production

Grazing & Biodiversity - Possibly some more birds and insects vs. an intensive feedcrop, but far less than rewilding: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ele.13527 & https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1011013108 Cycling crops through animals at about a 10% conversion rate: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015/meta Rewilding grassland carbon drawdown benefits:


IPCC AR6: Methane contributions to warming to date: IPCC AR6 WG1, Summary for Policymakers, p. 7 (chart), which shows methane has contributed 0.5°C of the 1.1°C of warming to date.



Best way of drawing down carbon from the atmosphere is forests, mangroves, and rewilding to native ecosystems: Lancet: "Restoring natural vegetation such as forest is currently the best option at scale for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The livestock sector, having largely displaced natural carbon sinks, continues to occupy much of the land that must be restored."


Environmental State of Dairy: https://www.iatp.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/IATP_MilkingThePlanet_f_0.pdf

  • Thirteen of the world’s largest dairy corporations combined to emit more greenhouse gases (GHGs) in 2017 than major polluters BHP, the Australia-based mining, oil and gas giant or ConocoPhillips, the United States-based oil company.


Signs of peak meat & dairy Consumption in some rich countries:


Antibiotic use in dairy production:


Manure applications in regenerative grazing, this global meta-analysis showed that it increases N2O by ~32% compared with mineral fertilizers. This further complicates this polarizing topic:

  • Stimulation of N2O emission by manure application to agricultural soils may largely offset carbon benefits: a global meta-analysis

  • https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13648

Higher methane from grass finished: "higher CH4 production (about four times) for cattle receiving low-quality, high-fiber diets than for cattle fed high-grain diets."


Spencer Roberts Regenerative Ranching Racket


Net Zero & GWP*


Highly paid lobbyist:


We need increased climate responsibilities for industrial meat and dairy producers: https://jenniferjacquet.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/lazarusmcdermidjacquet_2021_climaticchange.pdf


Overview of dairy vs. plant based milks


Freshwater use: Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises - Global Environmental Change journal


Only 6% of soy grown goes to human food. 81% of soy processing is in the form of cake. 99% of that goes to farmed animals.


Footprint of cultured meat substitutes:

Eat Lancet and Diets for a Better Future Report summary:

Global switch to vegetarian diet would save 7.3 million lives per year by 2050

Global switch to a vegan diet would save up to 8.1 million lives per year by 2050


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