Blog 27.05.22

The Dark Side of Dairy: Can Industrial Dairy Farming Ever be Sustainable?

Cows illustrating dairy sustainability issues discussed in the blog

Increasing demand

The dairy industry is currently flourishing. Global demand is growing, driven by various factors such as population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes, and changes in dietary trends — particularly in Asia. Dairy plays a positive role in several ways. It’s a source of essential nutrition for many, providing calcium, protein, and certain vitamins and minerals. It’s a large economic asset, not just for industrial companies but also for rural livelihoods in developing countries. It provides income for producers and a safety net for the poor, especially women.

The growth in demand, however, has led to market domination of large-scale dairy producers. The number of small-scale producers is dwindling, especially in North America, Asia and Europe. One study, for example, estimates that 99% of farmed animals in the US are living in factory farms.

Growing concern

Given the continued rise in factory farming and increasing global awareness of sustainability issues, it’s unsurprising that the dairy industry has recently been coming under scrutiny.  

Dairy farming produces large amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — mainly methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Depending on the management of the farm, it can also significantly contribute to air and water pollution, along with soil and biodiversity degradation.

Animal welfare is another big concern. At the core of industrial dairy farming is the forced insemination of cows and the removal of their calves hours after birth. Cows are typically impregnated from around 14 months old, kept on a cycle of birth, milking, and insemination, and killed after 4-6 years when they stop producing high volumes of milk (the natural lifespan of a cow is around 15-20 years). Male calves are usually killed within months of birth, as they can’t produce milk.

Other animal welfare issues include the fact that cows are often kept inside for most of the year, in overcrowded spaces where disease spreads rapidly. Practices such as tail docking and dehorning, performed without pain relief, are still commonly in use.

Milk illustrating dairy sustainability issues discussed in the blog

How openly do dairy companies address these issues?

We’ve assessed 10 of the global top 20 dairy producers by turnover on their sustainability strategy and communications. All bar one are European or North American, largely because there were limited publicly communicated sustainability commitments from companies in other regions. We found that the North American companies we assessed fared worst, which is perhaps unsurprising given EU sustainability-related legislation is stricter than that of the US and Canada.

Specific topics are frequently omitted from public communications. Soil health and biodiversity are key examples, with few of the companies assessed detailing their approaches to tackling these issues.

While all of the companies assessed are committed to reducing GHG emissions, only some detail plans to tackle methane specifically. Methane emissions from dairy farming are primarily produced from enteric fermentation — a process that occurs in a cow’s digestive system — and manure storage and handling. Often companies focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which is critical but ignores the fact that methane has a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2.

Details on animal welfare are another notable absence from sustainability communications. All the companies assessed state a commitment to welfare and many report approaches such as auditing farms and requiring farmers to submit data on housing, feeding, and general well-being of cows. Very little data is published, however, even from some of the top-scoring companies. The topic of slaughter is rarely mentioned, as are practices such as tail docking and dehorning, and the amount of time cows are allowed outside.

We’ll be sharing our summary report of findings soon. The report only assesses companies that have made specific sustainability commitments and even within this group we found numerous critical issues. This indicates the bigger picture is pretty bleak. The dairy industry needs to revolutionise fast.

Hope for the future?

There are two key reasons for optimism: the development of innovative farming techniques and growing sustainability-related investor requirements. New methods are currently being explored to reduce the environmental impacts of dairy farming, including the use of cow manure as a renewable energy source.

Other developments include regenerative agriculture — farming practices that improve soil health and biodiversity — and using feed additives to reduce methane emissions from cows. Insect protein is even being used in feed to reduce land requirements. Regarding animal welfare, some veal suppliers have partnered with dairy companies to reduce the unnecessary culling of male calves, such as in the UK and Qatar. Vegetarian dairy farms, in which no cows are slaughtered, currently only exist on a small scale with no foreseeable industrial expansion.

Investors are increasingly taking sustainability performance into account. Asset managers such as Candriam and Aviva Investors are beginning to view animal welfare as an important consideration. Investors, however, need comprehensive, credible information to make educated decisions, and even the top-scoring companies in our assessment are not providing enough of this. Data on issues such as animal welfare, soil health, biodiversity, and methane need to be disclosed more comprehensively. While an alternative protein portfolio is also deemed important for managing risk, it’s worth reiterating that global demand for dairy is currently growing.

While relevant legislation around the world is tending to become stricter, the transformation of the dairy industry is likely to be gradual. If sustainable farming practices are scaled-up to an industrial level, which is a big if, and far higher animal welfare standards are required, there is cause for optimism. But there’s a lot of work to do in the meantime.

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Beth Sandford-Bondy

Senior analyst and writer

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