December 19, 2018

U.S. Dairy Industry on Top in Sustainability

 |  By: Fran Howard

The news on climate change in 2018 has been startling to say the least, but the U.S. dairy industry—by virtue of its efficiency—appears to be doing its part to stem the steady path toward irreversible climate changes and economic disruption.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the 13 federal agencies of the United States recently issued a warning that if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not reduced, the impact could upend 10% of the U.S. economy by the end of the century. The report also noted that the changing climate could result in increased crop failures and negatively impact crop yields, infrastructure, and trade. 

A report released at the recent United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change 24th Conference of the Parties in Poland showed the global dairy industry reduced the intensity of its GHG emissions between 2005 and 2015 by 11%. According to Dairy Industries International, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report calculates that global dairy GHG emissions declined, on a per unit basis, from 2.8 to 2.5 kilogram of carbon equivalents per kilogram of product produced. 

“While the dairy industry emitted more GHG emissions in 2015 than 2005, the amount of milk produced was even larger,” notes Sara Dorland, analyst with the Daily Dairy Report and managing partner at Ceres Dairy Risk Management, Seattle. “In total, greenhouse gases emitted by the global dairy industry increased 18 percent over the 10-year period, but milk output increased 30 percent. The improvements were largely attributable to higher output per cow in developing countries. Developed nations like the United States, Europe, and New Zealand also made progress, but the efficiencies were already so high that most of the improvements were achieved at the lower level. Still, this is progress when many other industries have been unable to deliver such measurable goals.”

Dorland notes that by comparing output per cow to a typical cow’s GHG emissions, the United States bests other countries in efficiency. “In 2015, a U.S. dairy cow produced 22,373 pounds of milk per year with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2005 and 2015 of 1.5 percent,” she notes. “Last year, the average U.S. dairy cow produced 23,245 pounds. That indicates that a dairy cow in the United States is eight times as productive as one in India and 2.4 times as productive as one in New Zealand.”

When GHG emissions from dairy processing are taken into account, Dorland notes that the results change a bit, but when simply looking at it from the standpoint of the GHG emitted by cows, the U.S. dairy industry seems to lead the pack in sustainability. “However, the U.S. and global dairy industries should not be lulled into a false sense of security,” Dorland cautions. “Environmental regulations will continue to tighten if additional reports show similar rapid changes in the global climate.”