The Environmental Impact of Dairy Farming

Through his in-depth research into the environmental impacts of different foods, Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore made a startling discovery: the least sustainable soy milk was still better for the planet than the most sustainable dairy. So, why is dairy so bad, and what can we do to minimize our food-related impact on the planet?

Dairy cows standing under blue sky
Image Credit: AdobeStock

Methane and Climate Change

As well as the animal cruelty involved in dairy farming, there are environmental consequences of keeping cows in captivity. Methane is a powerful climate-altering gas, which over a 20-year period is 84 times as warming as CO2. The United Nations says that reducing methane emissions is vital for tackling climate breakdown, but where do we start?

Around 27 percent of all human-related methane emissions come from animal agriculture, and through no fault of their own, cows are by far the biggest contributors. The first issue is that cows are ruminants, and their digestive process creates methane. The second problem is that there are just so many of them. There are 270 million cows who have been bred into existence for their milk, and each one burps out large quantities of this climate-altering gas. Because of methane emissions and other climate-destroying processes, the 13 largest dairy firms in the world have been found to have the same combined greenhouse gas emissions as the whole of the United Kingdom (which is the sixth-largest economy in the world).


One big problem with animal agriculture is that it is so wasteful – animals eat a lot more calories than are returned in their meat, milk, or eggs. And this means far more land is needed to grow food for them than if we just grew plants to eat ourselves. In all, 83 percent of all available farmland in the world is used for animal agriculture, but it gives us just 18 percent of our calories. So wasteful! And while the number of farmed animals continues to rise, the amount of available farmland does not. Instead of living within our means, we take the land we want from nature. Forests and other vital habitats are cut down, not just for the grazing of cows but also to grow the soy that goes into their feed. With the loss of forests comes the loss of wildlife and the displacement of indigenous people. Scientists have warned that we are now experiencing the world’s sixth mass extinction, and animal agriculture is a key driver.

River and Lake Pollution

All around the world, our waterways are dying because of increasingly severe algal blooms. This dramatic growth in algae blocks out the light, which prevents aquatic plants from growing, and takes oxygen from the water, which kills fish and insects. Algal blooms are fueled by nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen which are found in animal waste and in the fertilizers needed to boost the production of crops to feed all the billions of farmed animals. When these nutrients get into the waterways, the consequences are severe. The same thing is happening all over the world – in the US, the UKIndiaIrelandNew Zealand, and anywhere there is significant dairy farming. The waterways are dying because of dairy and other animal agriculture. Environmental journalist George Monbiot calls it rivercide.

Ocean Dead Zones

The exact same thing is happening in the world’s oceans, where algal blooms suck out so much oxygen from the water that marine species must flee or die. Dead zones have been doubling every decade since the 1960s, and in 2008, there were 400 known dead zones. Again, pollution by nutrients – from farmed animal and human waste, primarily – are responsible for this. If we don’t stop this devastating trend, further extinctions are inevitable.

What’s the Solution?

It’s a pretty simple (and tasty) one: go dairy-free. We can make minor changes to our diet that will have a significant impact on the world. Since dairy milk produces three times as many emissions as soy milk, it’s easy to see why one simple switch can have a massive impact.

And plant milk is not always made of soy. There are many readily available varieties, including oat, almond, cashew, hazelnut, hemp, rice, and coconut milk, which can be used in tea or coffee, cereals, milkshakes, baking, or just on their own. Also, look out for plant-based yogurts, cream, cheese, and ice cream – there are so many to choose from!

Make this one change today and be part of the compassionate movement for a kinder, more sustainable world. Try vegan for 31 days with us – it’s free!


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