Big Dairy Has a Big Carbon Problem

The poor cows, the poor planet. (Photo: Getty)
The poor cows, the poor planet. (Photo: Getty)

The fossil fuel industry rightly gets a lot of flack for how it contributes to the climate crisis, but a recent report show that greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy industry can go toe to toe with some major fossil fuel companies. Not only are emissions from dairy high, they’re also on the rise.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy put out the report last week. The report relies on 2017 milk intake data, the most recent offered from the Dairy Research Centre, which tracks global milk production. From 2015 to 2017, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 11%. That’s equivalent to more than 35 billion pounds of coal burned. Some individual companies, however, saw their emissions rise some 30%. Thirteen of the world’s top dairy producers emit more carbon pollution combined than ConocoPhillips.

Despite all this, few world governments are taking on Big Dairy. The report authors are calling for increased public pressure and attention on the industry’s growing greenhouse gas problem.

“Our report is trying to show that we have to create a holistic set of forward-looking farm, trade, and climate policies to fix our food system and its emissions,” Shefali Sharma, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s European office, wrote in an email to Earther. She went on to note that “governments need to step in and regulate” the industry that has little to no climate oversight.

Advocates often frame the issue around food emissions as an individual problem, telling people to eat less meat or go vegan. While watching what you eat can make a sizable difference — especially if you cut how much beef you eat — this framework places an unreasonable emphasis on individual choices when the problem is a lot more widespread than that.

As the Guardian notes, the dairy industry emits more greenhouse gases than the UK. What someone has for dinner can only go so far in reducing those emissions. Agricultural systems need to change if the world plans to win the fight against climate change and cut pollution.

The report notes that companies in this sector are expanding their reach around the world, which can further complicate efforts to decrease dairy emissions. No laws currently require these companies to disclose how much carbon they emit, and governments don’t demand these companies to create climate action plans. Leaders are also failing to properly regulate these giant dairy companies that are killing competition from smaller rural producers whose carbon footprints are often much smaller.

While milk prices have gone down due in part to consolidation, the cost doesn’t include the externalities like greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. After all, is also polluting air and waterways due to the mismanagement of cattle and their waste. In comparison, the milk from your small local farmer may cost a bit more, but it’s often doing less harm to the planet.

“For a real shift, we need farm, trade and climate policies to align,” Sharma said. “We are calling on governments to redirect public funds… toward regenerative, agroecological agriculture that supports rural family farms and helps them transition away from industrial agriculture. They must regulate corporations to pay for the environmental, social, and public health impacts of the industrial model these transnational corporations perpetuate, and governments must help foster the revival of rural communities and build soil health. This includes ensuring that trade agreements do not undermine such regulations.”

This work is easier said than done. The next set of international climate talks is slated to to include a deeper look at agriculture emissions. But to-date, negotiations have generally been fruitless at reducing any source of emissions. Individual nations may have to step up to take on Big Dairy should action fail to materialise at the international level. The only way to get leaders to listen is to make some damn noise. The report authors hope these findings spark interest among advocates to make the dairy industry their next target.