GoEco Explains: The Environmental Impact of the Dairy Industry

We all know that a move to a plant-based diet is essential for helping the planet, but is anybody listening? 

In 2020 US dairy consumption reached an all time high after slowly creeping up over the last decade, with Americans increasing cheese consumption by 19%  and buying butter 24% more since 2010. Meanwhile China, with its growing urban middle class, is now the world’s second largest consumer of dairy products after a long period of disinterest in the white stuff. 

Despite movements toward plant-based, US dairy consumption was at an all time high in 2020.

The biggest winners from dairy consumption are the world’s exporters, the top of the list being New Zealand at 22% and Germany at 10% of market share respectively. Meanwhile private companies continue to rake it in whilst doing serious damage to the environment, with the 13 largest dairy firms combined having the same emissions as the entire United Kingdom. 

But why is dairy so bad exactly? Let’s take a look. 

The Dairy Industry’s Heavy Impact

On Land

Grazing cattle and growing monocrop feed has devastating consequences both for global warming and biodiversity.

Let’s begin with the cows themselves. There are currently 264 million dairy cows in the world with 1.9 million of those residing in the UK. As ruminators cows produce methane during their digestive process, and the sheer number of the animals mean that massive amounts of the greenhouse gas are being released into the atmosphere annually. Methane is 84x more warming than CO2 over a 20-year period and 27% of human-made methane comes from animal agriculture. 

The associated land use change (otherwise known as deforestation) that comes with dairy farming is also an ecological disaster, as forests are cut down not just to ranch and graze cattle but also to grow the feed that they require. It is estimated that 80% of global deforestation is due to agricultural production with an area of forest the size Spain lost since 2010 due to commodity production.  

71% of deforestation in South America is due to demand for animal products. In Brazil in particular, environmental regulation has been loosened to allow for large swathes of the Amazon Rainforest to be destroyed to make way for cattle and soy plantations. Soy plantation has increased 45% in Brazil since 2010, and 90% of that is used for cattle feed. Deforestation contributes up to 10% of GHG emissions from human activity, and cutting down carbon-sequestering forests to grow low-grade monocrops like soy and pasture methane-emitting cattle is truly the worst of both worlds. 

At Sea

Toxic chemicals, nitrates and phosphorus from fertilisers can cause suffocating algal blooms when they reach the water stream.

Dairy farming is also linked to damaging marine environments through contributing to algal bloom. Large amounts of nitrates and phosphorus are found in both fertilisers and cow manure. Poor handling of the sources of these chemicals leads to run off which ends up in waterways. Once there, the increase in chemicals causes an increase in toxic algae which kills off marine life. The first ecological ‘dead zone’ due to nutrient saturation was discovered in the 1970s and since then scientists have identified 415 around the world due to agricultural runoff. 

In a ranking of CO2 emissions linked to foods, cheese actually came fourth after beef, lamb and shrimp with milk just below it. Dairy is worse for the planet than both chicken and fish and due to a long ageing process cheese has some of the worst emissions of any dairy product. 

On Cattle

Cows and calves born into the dairy industry are sadly subject to cruel practises.

Aside from the vast environmental destruction linked to dairy farming, a large part of the industry is also subject to cruel practices which come with the territory of milk production. Every year cows are forcefully impregnated and have their offspring taken away from them soon after birth, with the male calves killed shortly thereafter. Cows and calves are often kept indoors in cramped conditions and have hormones and antibiotics injected into them. Branding, dehorning and tail docking are all also carried out on many dairy cows, who live a tragic life before ultimately being killed. 

The Best Ways to Reduce Dairy Consumption 

We understand that making big changes can be hard and you’re probably thinking at the moment that removing dairy from your life is impossible. However, if you start small we’re confident that soon enough you’ll be able to go dairy-free. Even if completely removing dairy isn’t what you want, any reduction will be better for the environment than none. 


We recommend that you start with plant based milks, with so many alternatives out there you can find the one for you easily enough, even if there’s conflicting information about their environmental impacts. We put milk in our tea, coffee and on our cereal so it’s a great place to start if you’re wanting to infuse plant-based products into the rhythm of your daily life. 

Getting Biccy With It

Once you’re putting your plant-based milk of choice in your tea, it’s time to reassess the biscuits you’ve got on the side. Whether you’re dunking or not, maybe you should rethink the chocolate digestives and go for a dairy-free alternative. The good news is that old favourites like oreos and jaffa cakes and bourbons are all dairy free. Top tip; (which you can carry into looking for other milk-free treats) when checking the ingredients any dairy products will be listed in bold, as dairy is an allergen. Use this to educate yourself on what products have dairy in them, you might be surprised!

To Brie or Not to Brie…

Now it’s the moment you’ve been dreading – cheese. Unfortunately there’s simply no good alternative to a delicious cheese board, and we’re not expecting you to go without at Christmas. However, if you’re willing to try plant-based cheeses (many of which are now available in major supermarkets) then we’d love you to purchase some and sprinkle it on your pasta bake. Other flavourful alternatives to cheese include yeast flakes, tahini, hummus and sweet potato; try these on your sandwiches or in cheese-heavy recipes for a tasty cheese-free treat. It is also worth noting that soft cheeses with a shorter ageing process like camembert and brie have lower carbon emissions. 

Any or all of these swaps will reduce your dairy intake so give it a go! If you can do all of them and go completely dairy free that’s great, but any changes are a step in the right direction.

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