Beginning at a young age, society tells us that milk is the cornerstone of a healthy body. Schools and doctors offices are riddled with posters of the infamous food pyramid, with dairy products taking up a significant portion of a healthy diet. And while calcium is beneficial for our health, dairy isn't the only way to consume the recommended amount. In fact, your morning latte is doing more harm than good when it comes to the health of the environment.
When we think of climate change fueled by foods, beef is usually the first thing that comes to mind. In recent years, environmental specialists have been proposing decreased beef consumption as a means of reducing methane production. Research shows that methane, a natural gas, is actually 30 times more potent than CO2. But where does beef come into the equation?
Surprisingly, it comes from the cows themselves (their burps, to be exact). Each minute, cows burp at least one time. And while it may seem insignificant, the global cow population is anything but, with their population coming in at roughly 1.5 billion. So one burp, per minute, per cow... You can see how it adds up.
The reason that cows are so gassy comes down to the composition of their stomachs. Cows have extremely complex digestive systems, with 4 different compartments in their stomachs alone. One compartment in particular is responsible for the majority of the methane production, called the rumen. The rumen is where the cow's food is broken down with stomach bacteria, causing excessive amounts of gas.
The stomach composition of cows causes them to burp high amounts of methane
We already know that cows are big-time contributors to climate change. But throughout the research and awareness of cow's methane production, dairy's name has remained untarnished; Until now. Avoiding beef is no longer the only effective way to reduce your personal carbon footprint.
Dairy Products: The Hidden Culprit
Dairy products have really made a name for themselves worldwide. As a vegetarian (not vegan, mind you) choice for protein and calcium, dairy knows no boundaries. Cultures around the world incorporate diary into many of their dishes and drinks. Milk, butter, and cheese are staples of the food pyramid, after all.
It's this mainstream usage of dairy products that makes diary production and consumption such a dietary constant. In the United States alone, dairy farms produce more than 196 billion pounds of milk per year. That number doesn't even reflect the production of cheeses, butter, and ice cream; The numbers are truly staggering.
With production levels this high, it's apparent that the demand for dairy products is certainly there. However, while the dairy industry strengthens the economy, it's simultaneously harming the planet; An expense that our climate simply can't afford.
Breaking Down the Environmental Costs
We already know that cows are the leading producers of methane, but let's look at the numbers. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from the dairy sector. What's even crazier is that 72% of the emissions occur before the dairy even leaves the farm. So what factors are to blame?
The entire life cycle of dairy products is bad for the environment, but most of the damage is done on the farm. Aside from the cow burps, the agricultural aspect of cow farms has a huge effect on pollution. Raising and caring for the dairy cows requires an enormous amount of resources, much of which take a toll on the environment.
One of the biggest natural resources consumed by dairy cows (and agriculture in general really) is water. Animal agriculture alone accounts for over 1/4 of the global water footprint. Out of this amount, dairy cows rake up 19% of that water used. From cleaning to hydrating the cows, water usage adds up on dairy farms, and fast.
While cleaning the dairy facilities takes up a ton of time, effort, and water, it doesn't effectively protect surrounding areas either. According to recent reports, the pollution of cow manure is turning out to be a lot worse than expected. In Wisconsin, the areas surrounding the many dairy farms are falling victim to contaminated water sources. The groundwater is tainted, and lakes and streams are littered with bacteria from the cow manure.
Dairy farms cause local pollution as well as global
Even before the cows are ready for milking, a significant amount of greenhouse gases are already in play. Naturally, the cows need adequate drinking water in order to survive. But, think about the bigger picture of agriculture in general; The food supply for cows is mostly made up of hay, grass, corn, and grains. Each of these crops requires large amounts of water to grow. And in order to feed all of the dairy cows, a lot of these crops are needed. In fact, each cow eats roughly 2 percent of its body weight per day. That equals about 24 pounds daily.
In all stages of the dairy cycle, greenhouse gas emissions steal the show. From gathering feed for the cows to raising them for milking, methane production is a huge concern. Unfortunately, a lack of consumer awareness is only making the problem worse. While everyone is cutting down on beef, they're still downing gallons of milk and liberally spreading butter on toast, completely oblivious to the problem they're fueling.
Culturally, we're accustomed to dairy products. Aside from those who are lactose intolerant, milk and other dairy products are a staple in the majority of American's diets. But climate change and upward-climbing methane levels in the atmosphere are calling for a change, and quick. So next time you're shopping around for your routine gallon of milk, consider trying out a non-dairy substitute. It's these subtle changes that can make a real difference in the future of the planet.