By Rowenna Hoskin
While many people are aware of the negative effects of the meat industry on the environment, very few are aware of the dairy industry’s impacts. According to a recent study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), the largest dairy companies in the world have the same combined greenhouse gas emissions as the entire UK – the sixth biggest economy in the world.
Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are the three main greenhouse gases. They are responsible for blocking the earth’s heat from escaping into space. In small quantities, they help make our planet habitable. In large quantities however, greenhouse gases get trapped and cause the planet to warm up; the process known as climate change.
The greenhouse gas emissions from the big dairy companies rose from 306m tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015 to 338m tonnes in 2017. For reference, the entire United Kingdom produces 350m tonnes annually. This increase occurred after the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. More than 90% of corporate dairy industry emissions originate from the cows themselves.
The consolidation of the dairy giants has forced milk prices down which has caused a crisis in rural livelihoods, requiring taxpaying subsidies to keep farmers afloat. Researchers recommend introducing caps on the production of dairy for the benefit of both the environment and famers.
The author of this study and European director at IATP, Shefali Sharma, says that “unlike growing public scrutiny on fossil fuel companies, little public pressure exists to hold global meat and dairy corporations accountable for their emissions.’ Shockingly she added, “few of these companies are even reporting their emissions.”
“As governments ratchet up their climate goals, the rise of large-scale dairy and public incentives that further increase corporate dairy power, production and emissions must be stopped. Rural livelihoods and our planet’s future depend on it.”
In a joint statement, dairy representatives Judith Bryons, the president of the International Dairy federation, and Donald Moore, the executive director of the Global Dairy Platform, said that “the dairy sector is committed to producing nutritious foods in environmentally sound and responsible ways.”
“It is very easy to put out a report that criticises and tries to paint a simple picture of a sector which doesn’t contain all of the nuances or realities of how the global dairy sector nourishes the world with nutrient rich, safe foods and does so in a manner that strives for continued environmental improvement while providing livelihoods to a large percentage of the world’s population.”
“In order to limit temperature rise, the dairy sector must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and work towards a low-carbon future… There is a clear case for immediate and more ambitious action.”
“The [Dairy] sector’s emissions have been increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015 because overall milk production has grown substantially by 30%. The good news is that there are many opportunities within the sector to limit climate change by reducing emissions. While there is some uncertainty about the size and timing of changes, it is certain that it is happening.” The dairy representatives did not consider reducing production of dairy.
“[Dairy’s] rich nutrition helps populations, particularly in developing nations, avoid malnutrition and poor health outcomes.” The biggest global producers of dairy are the European Union, India and the United States.
The IATP’s report used the UN FAO’s global livestock environmental assessment model to assign emission levels to dairy produced in different areas. This data was then applied to the companies’ production quantities as calculated by the IFCN dairy research network.
While there is certainly a debate between environmental scientists and dairy representatives, it is evident that in order to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Crisis agreement, something must change. The dairy industry has been largely passed over for its responsibility in the deteriorating state of the planet, but now it is obligated to acknowledge and change its ways for a cleaner planet Earth. We must question the future of the dairy industry, and what we want our futures to look like.