Dairy and the Environment FAQ

November 15, 2019

Q: How does the dairy industry affect the environment?
A: A multitude of factors position dairy as an environmentally damaging food. The industry is responsible for a significant contribution of greenhouse gases (4 percent of the world total); an enormous amount of waste (over one billion pounds of waste is generated each day by US dairy cows alone); outrageous water usage (it takes 900 pounds of water to create one pound of cheese), and egregious pollution (the EPA has recognized dairy manure as a contributor to US water pollution). (1,2,3,4)

Q: I heard almonds require a ton of water to produce. Does dairy require as much water? 
A: While many point fingers at almonds for being water-intensive, cows’ milk is the larger water culprit. It takes approximately 384 liters of water to produce one liter of almond milk. (5) On the other hand, one liter of cows’ milk requires 1,016 liters. (5) Even if almonds are more water-intensive than other alternative milks, it’s still a far more sustainable choice compared to cows’ milk. 

Q: What if I’m already a vegetarian? Isn’t that enough? 
A: Going vegetarian will reduce your carbon emissions by on average 31% and land use by 51%. In comparison, ditching dairy (and eggs) can reduce your carbon emissions by an average of 45% and land use by 55%. (6) Making that minor transition to plant-based can truly make a world of difference.

Q: I recycle, compost, take public transportation, and never use single-use plastic. Aren’t I doing my part?
A: While those are admirable efforts, we still cannot ignore the food system. In fact, thanks to all of the high-quality products on the market, switching to dairy-free, plant-based foods has never been easier. It’s far less of a hassle to purchase a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy ice cream than to maintain a compost bin or even to remember to bring your reusable water bottle and straw everywhere you go. Most people eat multiple times a day—each is an opportunity to further the degredation of the planet or to contribute to its sustainability. What you choose to eat on a daily, even hourly basis is the simplest yet most impactful thing you can do for our earth. 

Q: What are some sustainable alternatives to cows’ milk?
A: Try oat milk. It only takes 48 liters of water to produce 1 liter of oat milk, whereas it takes 1,016 liters of water for just one liter of cows’ milk. (7) Soy and pea milk are other viable options—both offer the same amount of protein as cows’ milk (8 grams per cup), but require far less water. It takes 297 liters of water to produce one liter of soy milk, and cows’ milk demands 25-times the amount of water as pea milk. (8,9) 

Q: Is all dairy bad for the environment? What about organic or locally produced dairy? 
A: Yes, no matter the label—grass-fed, organic, local, or free-range—dairy is still a detriment to the environment. Cows require a tremendous amount of resources to maintain. This includes water as well as land and food. In fact, grass-fed, free-range cows require even more food and water because they exercise more. Further, the earth simply does not have enough land to sustain an entirely free-range cattle system—even if we continue to plow down the Amazon rainforest. In regards to food, dairy is extremely inefficient. Organic or otherwise, it takes 100 calories of cattle feed to produce just 40 calories of milk. (10) It is simply inefficient and wasteful to funnel such vast amounts of resources into a food that offers so little return on investment. 

Q: What about dairy products such as cheese and yogurt?
A: If cows’ milk in its unadulterated form is hazardous to the environment, its products are even more devastating. Cheese, particularly, presents a gargantuan issue. It takes 900 pounds of water to produce one pound of cheese. (3) Further, eating four ounces of cheese contributes to the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as driving 3.5 miles. (11) Americans eat an average of 35 pounds (560 ounces) of cheese every year—that’s 490 miles worth of extra carbon emissions per person! (12) As for butter, the condiment ranks third on the National Resource Defense Council’s chart of the ten most common climate-damaging foods due to its sheer inefficiency—it takes 21 pounds of milk to produce one pound of butter. (13) Finally, your morning cup of Greek yogurt could be contributing to massive water pollution. It takes three to four ounces of milk to produce one ounce of Greek yogurt—the rest is acidic whey—a toxic substance that can wreak havoc on the planet. Currently, this byproduct is being mixed into cattle feed and fertilizer as a workaround, but this solution is far from optimal. To give an idea of just how damaging acidic whey is, a 2008 spill in Ohio caused the death of over 5,400 wild animals—the majority of them fish. (14) No yogurt parfait is worth this risk. 


  1. http://www.fao.org/3/k7930e/k7930e00.pdf
  2. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Charts_and_Maps/Milk_Production_and_Milk_Cows/milkcows.php
  3. https://www.watereducation.org/post/food-facts-how-much-water-does-it-take-produce
  4. https://www.epa.gov/nps
  5. https://treadingmyownpath.com/2017/04/20/is-almond-milk-bad-for-the-planet/
  6. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0165797
  7. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987
  8. https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Ercin-et-al-2012-WaterFootprintSoy_1.pdf
  9. https://www.ripplefoods.com/healthy-environment/
  10. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015/meta
  11. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/say-cheese
  12. https://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/eat-smart/
  13. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/10-common-climate-damaging-foods-infographic.pdf
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/dec/08/greek-yogurt-acid-whey-protein-drinks-baby-formula-environmental-dark-side


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