Will Removing Dairy Cows Help Stop Climate Change?
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an article that was published on USDairy.org. You can read the full article here.
There’s a theory that may sound logical to some: Eliminate U.S. dairy cows and you’ll lessen climate issues.
But does that theory stand up to sound science?
A team of researchers from Virginia Tech and U.S. Department of Agriculture recently put it to the test and found that if the dairy herd were somehow removed from the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) would only be reduced by about 0.7%, while seriously reducing the supply of various essential nutrients that milk provides.
Milk production contributes approximately 1.3% of all U.S. GHG emissions, the researchers say. (By comparison, transportation as an industry in the U.S. accounts for 28% of GHG emissions.) While proponents of the cow elimination theory might suggest plant-based alternatives as an environmentally friendly option to dairy, those foods also generate emissions and come with their own footprint.
For example, using land currently used for dairy cow feed to grow fruits and vegetables instead resulted in increased GHG emissions and reduced supply of calcium, vitamins D and B12, riboflavin and alpha-linolenic acid. Growing nuts and pulses reduced emissions but resulted in similar nutrient supply shortages.
Eliminate the cows to reduce emissions and you also eliminate a great source of accessible, affordable and nutrient-rich dairy foods. Americans get more than half of their calcium and vitamin D from milk, cheese and yogurt. Different researchers found that it is not a simple task to obtain essential nutrients found in milk from another single food source, or even many foods, without increasing daily calories – and cost.
The researchers also examined what they call the “downstream” effects of eliminating dairy cows, including land use. Pastures used for dairy cows would no longer be used for that purpose. The same goes for cropland that farmers use to produce nutritious feed for their cattle.
The U.S. dairy industry has made continuous improvements in environmental stewardship. On the farm, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly from 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint.