How Does Dairy Impact Climate Change?

Apr 22, 2021

There are approximately 270 million dairy cows worldwide. Unlike wild species, cows are domesticated animals that have been bred to such a massive extent that harms the planet. The process of dairying takes an extreme toll on our environment and contributes to climate change.

The global dairy industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and taxes the earth’s water supply and precious land. There is no ecological benefit to dairying nor is dairy a necessity for human survival—it’s a want, not a need, and it’s causing irrevocable damage to the place we all call home. From emissions to the depletion of natural resources, here is how dairy impacts climate change. 

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Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change

The global dairy industry makes up four percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While this single digit may seem insignificant, remember, this is just one food category. If every food industry contributed four percent, the world would max out at just 25 food industries—and that’s not accounting for other GHG contributors such as transportation and electricity.

Dairy’s GHG are made up of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Methane—the most potent of the three—is produced from cows themselves (think of the collective 270 million cow farts and burps). Nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide enter the air as a result of cow manure.

Beyond the farm, one also has to consider the transportation and electricity required to raise the cows (transport feed, operate milking machines, etc) when looking at the total scope of GHG emissions. Collectively, it’s far beyond what any single industry (particularly a non-essential industry) should be contributing. 

What’s wrong with greenhouse gases? They directly contribute to climate change. Methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide all warm the planet, and their effects can last decades to thousands of years (depending on the emission). Dairying is causing lasting damage, and the longer we continue, the further we’re digging ourselves and our planet into a hole we cannot escape from. 

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Water Use 

If you’ve ever encountered a dairy cow in person, you know they’re big—bigger than you imagined. The world has approximately 270 million of them at any given time, and they drink a lot of water. Water is also required to flush out manure and sanitize barns, clean machinery, cool cows, and irrigate the crops cows will eventually eat. Given all of these applications that demand water, it takes approximately 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. If that sounds extremely inefficient, it’s because it is. 

Americans consume about 17 gallons of milk per person per year. Multiply the population of America by 17,000 (gallons of water per person), and that’s 5,576,000,000,000,000 gallons of water needed to keep up America’s milk consumption. The number is mind-boggling, and it doesn’t even account for other dairy products that have become increasingly popular such as butter, cheese, and ice cream. 

Water is a finite resource, and the dairy industry is making frustratingly inefficient use of it. One simple thing everyone can do to lower their water footprint is to simply swap out dairy for plant milks. Yes, even almonds are less water-dependent than dairy. 

Land Use

Those 270 million cows have to stand somewhere, but like water, land is a limited resource. Beyond the physical space a cow takes up, there are grazing areas, barns, enormous corporate dairy production facilities, manure lagoons, and the land needed to grow crops to feed the cows.

In America alone, dairy farms require the land equivalent of the state of Virginia. Essentially, the nation could dedicate an entire state to dairy. What’s more upsetting is that the US isn’t even the top dairy-producing nation. That title belongs to India, and it requires far more land than the state of Virginia for its dairy operations. 

It’s not just the measured space that becomes the issue in dairy’s land use—it’s what the industry does to the land. Giant vats of manure accompany each dairy farm, and those lagoons of feces are not leak-proof. Even if you were to discount the occasional manure spill that wreaks havoc on the surrounding areas, the EPA still considers dairy manure a threat to the land and waterways due to surface runoff. It simply does not make sense to pollute our land to drink a substance that will pollute our bodies. 

Thankfully, we can choose to protect the planet by withdrawing our support of an industry that harms it. Learn more about how to ditch dairy with these easy steps.

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