Is dairy bad for the environment? Generally, yes…

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Despite more and more people adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle, the vast majority of us still have dairy items in our diet. Here in the U.S, the average adult drinks nearly 70 liters of dairy milk every single year. It is widely accepted that the meat industry presents some significant environmental challenges, but is dairy bad for the environment too? 

Firstly, what counts as dairy?

Dairy products are those that are made with the milk of mammals. Typically, the mammals concerned tends to be cows – but often includes water buffalo, goats and camel. Milk, yogurt, cheese and butter fall into the dairy category.

There seems to be a common misconception that eggs count as dairy produce – perhaps because they are often located together in the grocery store, or maybe because they are often pictured together.  Whatever the reason for this misconception though, eggs are definitely not dairy produce!

Significant land use in dairy farming

Dairy cows need space to live. Not only that, but their food also needs space to grow! This can have a significant impact on the environment. Making space can lead to a loss of biodiversity as habitats are lost. High levels of water pollution also exist around highly farmed areas due to potential for a greater amount of runoff. It’s not all bad news though – it could be argued that the land needed to grow their food is over estimated.  Cow feed is often waste from other industries – this would have been thrown away anyway. For example, grains that have been recycled after the use in food and beverage production.

Intensive land use, as in the case of dairy farming, can also lead to soil degradation. Grazing leads to bare soil – which, in turn, can lead to infertile land and increased chance of flooding. Soil degradation also leads to poor plant growth and, as a result, less plants available to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  To make matters worse, degraded soil actually releases carbon (which it had stored up) in the form of carbon dioxide. This is a greenhouse gas and will contribute to global warming.

Greenhouse gases related to dairy farming

As well as the carbon dioxide release related to soil degradation, another greenhouse gas is linked to the dairy industry – methane. Methane is estimated to be 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, making it an even more dangerous in terms of climate change.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 came from the agriculture sector. Dairy farming contributes to this. Cows produce methane as part of their normal digestive physiology – passing wind, belching and pooping. And with 270 million dairy cows worldwide, that’s a lot of methane! In terms of emissions, traditional butter was found to be three-and-a-half times more damaging than plant-based spreads.

Lots of energy and water needed

As well as the excessive land needed, dairy products also require a significant amount of energy and water. Butter is particularly energy intensive due to the high-intensity processes, such as churning, involved. But even just producing milk, the most basic of dairy products, can use a lot of energy due to increasing  automation.

Unsurprisingly, when cows’ milk is compared to the plant-based milk alternatives, it was found to use significantly more water. Water is needed for different parts of the production – from the water needed to grow their food to the water that they drink. In 2018 it was estimated that for every liter of cow’s milk produced, 628 liters of water is needed.

Potential pollution from by-products

Greek yogurt has come under fire for the pollution potential of one of its by-products. As part of the manufacturing process, liquid – known as acid whey – is strained out of the yogurt to make it even more creamy. If this ends up in waterways it can have a disastrous effect on aquatic life. Although it can be used on fields as fertilizer, the amount that can be used is minimal due to the risk of runoff. The search is on to find a solution that is both lucrative and good for the environment.

The bottom line

The dairy industry causes cause havoc in the environment. From taking up an incredible amount of land to the greenhouse gases emitted. Although plant-based spreads and milks are not perfect, they bring significantly less of the issues associated with dairy. It should be noted that exact environmental impact varies between different dairy items. However, overall, evidence suggests that dairy is harmful to the environment.