Let’s talk about dairy and the environment. While meat is often to blame for our planet’s declining state, the dairy industry plays a monumental role in the degradation of the place we call home. Not to mention, meat is also a byproduct of the dairy industry, so there’s that (where do you think all those male calves go? Not to the farm …). Between the massive amount of land and water required to sustain our global dairy operations and the pollution the industry emits, dairy is a destructive practice when it comes to the preservation of the earth. Here’s everything you need to know about dairy and the environment.
Dairy and the Environment: Is the Industry an Issue?
A multitude of factors positions dairy as an environmentally damaging food. The industry is responsible for a significant contribution of greenhouse gases (four 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)
In regards to dairy’s contribution to greenhouse gases, while four percent may not seem significant, it is when you consider that this is just one food. Imagine if every food was as damaging—it would only take 25 foods to make up the current level of greenhouse gas emissions. Cows’ milk contributes far more than its fair share to greenhouse gas emissions. Further, half of these emissions come from methane—a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. (15)
I heard almonds require a ton of water to produce. Does dairy require as much water?
When it comes to dairy and the environment, dairy lobbies point fingers at almonds for being water-intensive. However, 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) Ninety-eight percent of this water includes the crops used to feed the cows, but it also accounts for the water cows drink and the water used to clean barns and dairy equipment. (16) Even if almonds are more water-intensive than other alternative milks, it’s still a far more sustainable choice compared to cows’ milk.
Almonds—and other crops used to make plant milk—also do not contribute to massive water pollution, as dairy does. A dairy of just 200 cows can produce as much nitrogen sewage as a town of 5,000-10,000 people. (18) Considering that some of the largest dairies in the US house over 15,000 cows, this sewage is increasingly difficult to manage. (17) The manure collects in vast open-air lagoons where even the smallest amount of runoff can contribute to freshwater pollution for both humans and animals. You won’t find enormous, stinking pools of almond waste near an almond farm.
What is dairy’s impact on land use?
America’s consumption of fluid milk alone requires the land equivalent of the state of Virginia. (20) Translation: the US could fill an entire state worth of cows and dairy facilities. Dairy’s dominant land use is also responsible for endangering the lives of certain species who inhabit areas with high levels of dairy facilities. For example, the San Joaquin kit fox is now one of the most endangered species in the state due to the loss of habitat and pesticide runoff from the many dairy and animal agriculture facilities in the region. (19)
What if I’m already a vegetarian? Isn’t that enough?
Going vegetarian will reduce your food-based carbon emissions by on average 31 percent and land use by 51 percent. In comparison, ditching dairy (and eggs) can reduce your food-based carbon emissions by an average of 45 percent and land use by 55 percent. (6) As evident by the major contributions to greenhouse gases and dairy’s massive land and water use, making that minor transition to plant-based can truly make a world of difference when it comes to dairy and the environment.
I recycle, compost, take public transportation, and never use single-use plastic. Aren’t I doing my part?
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 degradation 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.
What are some sustainable alternatives to cows’ milk?
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)
When it comes to dairy and the environment, is all dairy bad? What about organic or locally produced dairy?
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 food that offers so little return on investment.
What about dairy products such as cheese and yogurt?
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.
To learn more about dairy and the environment, see:
- FAO. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector: A Life Cycle Assessment.”
- Hoekstra, Arjen Y. “The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy.” Animal Frontiers. April 2012.
- Grossman, Elizabeth. “As Dairy Farms Grow Bigger, New Concerns About Pollution.” Yale, Environment 360. 27 May 2014.
- USDA. “Animal Manure Management. RCA Issue Brief #7 December 1995.”
- Center for Biological Diversity. “San Joaquin Kit Fox.”