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The global dairy industry is a huge one. The EU, US and New Zealand account for almost half of global dairy production, and the largest 13 dairy corporations emit as much greenhouse gases as 6.9 million passenger cars generate in a year (Sharma, 2020).  Because it is so colossal, sustainability issues are plentiful within the industry, with a 2013 review on the subject finding that dairies lack adaptability in facing changing environmental, climatic and social landscapes (Von Keyserlingk et al., 2013). This post will give an overview of the developments in the industry, and an overview of the profit vs environmental protection debate.

Compared with the dairy production of 1944, 59% more milk is produced by 64% fewer cows, which themselves consume 77% less feed (Von Keyserlingk et al., 2013). Average yield of milk per cow per year has increased to a whopping 7500l, compared to 5500l 10 years ago (Pullar et al., 2011). This intensification of animal agriculture has clear benefits, the main being the increased efficiency in feed and water usage per litre of milk product, which is critical in the mission to feed the 9 billion people living on the planet by 2050. And efficiency is easier to achieve in larger settings: Milani et al. (2011) reported that small dairies released around 4x the amount of greenhouse gases as large plants, the majority of which were associated with electricity consumption.

But intensification of the industry has also got its negative points. The push to reduce the cost of producing milk means that biodiversity, smallscale farming, animal welfare and environmental protections are often forgotten. In 2004 50% of dairy output was produced by only 25% of producers, as it is more economically viable to concentrate production into fewer, larger farms, than many small dairies (Dewick & Foster, 2007). This is of course bad news for mid-sized dairies and rural economies, but also worsens the vicious cycle of environmental destruction: encouraging mass production at low prices forces farms to expand in order to remain viable and competitive, which in turn increases the environmental footprint of such operations, further encouraging mass production.

The intensification of animal agricultural has resulted in disruptive effects on the environment, food availability, rural populations, biodiversity, and animal welfare” – Von Keyserlingk et al., 2013

But is mass production always a bad thing? Concentrating production in larger corporations also brings the benefit of higher capital, which makes investment into improving efficiency more feasible. The high cost of many technological solutions prevents smallscale dairies from investing, but this is less of a barrier to large corporations (Milani et al., 2011). Dairy UK, the industry’s largest trade union in Britain, encourages such investment in improving efficiency and reduced resource use through its “Dairy Roadmap”, which it claims has increased water efficiency and recycling rates of plastic milk bottles by 24% and 85% respectively since its creation in 2008 (  

It is important to note here that smallscale dairies are still a crucial part of milk production around the world, and that they are not necessarily inefficient because of their size. When accounting for the full life cycle of a product, there are gains to be made outside of production – the environmental footprint of any dairy can be reduced by delivering products in glass bottles or cardboard cartons compared to plastics, by transporting to local consumers (lowering food miles) and by using renewable energy sources across all stages of production and processing (Milani et al., 2011).

Production system and herd size are not good indicators of profitability – the key factor is that the system is well managed.” – Pullar et al., 2011

It is not clear cut whether agricultural intensification should be encouraged, where large businesses swallow up their smaller counterparts, or whether technological improvements should be made accessible to all, and encouraged across all sections of the industry. The next section will look at a couple of other issues I found interesting when researching for this blog post – I hope you do too!

Water usage

In arid regions, such as California in the US, irrigation is heavily relied upon for the growth of crops for cattle. 98% of the water footprint for animal production in these regions is tied to the production of feed – this is really concerning when climate change is expected to alter weather extremes, increase aridity in many areas and alter growing seasons across the world (Von Keyserlingk et al., 2013).

Modifying cattle

Selective breeding has been the main way through which cattle are selected for milk production: choosing the best quality cattle ensures the best quality and the highest volume of milk. But it can also lead to a loss of genetic diversity, reduced fertility (Moore & Thatcher, 2006) as well as welfare problems in cattle (Dewick & Foster, 2007). Many technologies have been developed to artificially develop “superior” animals for milk production, including artificial insemination, transgenesis and even cloning. Such genetic modification allows desirable traits to be added to an individual from other individuals or other varieties of cattle (Moore & Thatcher, 2006). For example, it has been shown that a gene taken from a bacteria and inserted into cattle can lead to resistance to mastitis, a potentially fatal disease which causes inflammation (Moore & Thatcher, 2006). This has huge potential at further improving the environmental impact of the industry, through breeding cattle who need fewer resources to produce milk. However, genetic modification is mistrusted and hugely debated amongst the general population, which prevent its current use.


Dewick, P. & Foster, C. (2007) Transition in the UK dairy industry: a more sustainable alternative?. SCP cases in the field of Food, Mobility and Housing, p.23

Milani, F.X., Nutter, D. & Thoma, G. (2011) Invited review: Environmental impacts of dairy processing and products: A review. Journal of dairy science94(9), pp.4243-4254

Moore, K. & Thatcher, W.W. (2006) Major advances associated with reproduction in dairy cattle. Journal of Dairy Science89(4), pp.1254-1266

Pullar, D., Allen, N. & Sloyan, M. (2011) Challenges and opportunities for sustainable livestock production in the UK. Nutrition Bulletin36(4), pp.432-437

Sharma, S. (2020) Milking the planet. [online] Available at: (Accessed: 22/06/2020)

Von Keyserlingk, M.A.G., Martin, N.P., Kebreab, E., Knowlton, K.F., Grant, R.J., Stephenson, M., Sniffen, C.J., Harner Iii, J.P., Wright, A.D. & Smith, S.I. (2013) Invited review: Sustainability of the US dairy industry. Journal of Dairy Science96(9), pp.5405-5425


Published by avleveri

Hi! I'm Anna, an environmental science graduate from the UK. My main interests (if you can't already tell from my blog posts) are sustainability, consumption, conservation, nutrition, fitness and food! Lots of food.

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