Is dairy always worse for the environment compared to dairy alternatives?

Is dairy always worse for the environment compared to dairy alternatives?

A 2018 study by the University of Oxford explains that animal products (meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy) use around 83% of the world’s farmland and constitute between 50 and 58% of food’s emissions. However, these animal products only provide 37% of protein and 18% of calories in diets.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Despite there being significant efforts and evidence that animal products can be produced in a way that is beneficial to the environment (check our interview with Pasture for Life who are changing the livestock farming game), the research actually argue that “the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins.”

How specifically?

The authors argue that diets excluding animal products (including milk) have a transformative potential across various environmental impacts.

Having a diet that uses dairy or animal alternatives can reduce

  • land use for agriculture by 76%;
  • food’s GHG emissions by 49%;
  • acidification by 50%;
  • eutrophication by 49% reduction; and
  • scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19%.

They argue that this is mainly due to the fact that emissions from the production of feed for animals exceed emissions of vegetable protein farming. For instance, deforestation is dominated (67%) by animal feed production (soy, maize). They claim that better pasture management can temporarily sequester carbon, however, it can only reduce emissions for ruminants by a maximum of 22%. Animal manure and the process of enteric fermentation also contribute to additional emissions. The emissions of processing meat, especially from slaughterhouse effluent, are quite high, greater than emissions for processing most other products. Finally, they argue that fresh animal products are more prone to spoiling, meaning that they have higher rates of wastage.

This is quite a clear message that we should be reducing our animal product consumption, or ideally eliminating it. Of course for those that are struggling to do so, it’s important to at least buy only from farmers with good agricultural practices and good pasture management. For instance, going to farms that are certified by the PFLA could be a great activity and method of understanding how you can eat better meat.