We’re often told that we as individuals can help fight climate change simply by changing our diet. We should choose plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy. So it would seem obvious that eliminating dairy production would greatly assist in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Right?!
Researchers at Virginia Tech found that isn’t entirely true. The group considered three scenarios: herd management, retiring cows, or depopulation. Each scenario yielded the same result: emissions slightly decreased and so did important nutrients.
Under herd management, farmers continued producing dairy products, but those products were all exported. The U.S. stopped consuming dairy. In this scenario, the GHG emissions remained the same. But the U.S. lost access to essential nutrients.
Under the retirement model, farmers simply sent dairy cows out to pasture. The result was a 12-percent reduction in emissions, but all 39 nutrients included in the study declined.
Depopulation had similar results. In that situation, farmers simply killed off all existing dairy cows. That model yielded a 7 percent reduction in emissions. In turn, 30 of 39 nutrients would increase (presumably because you’re eating the cows), but several essential nutrients declined.
To put all of these numbers in perspective, dairy cows only contribute 1.58 percent of the country’s total GHG emissions. And that’s mostly because dairy farmers have become increasingly efficient over the last 50 years. It now takes fewer animals, food, water, and land to produce the same amount of milk. So while the industry has a carbon footprint, it’s getting smaller over time.
Yet we can’t oversell dairy’s importance in our diets. Milk has nine essential nutrients: protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, and B12, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Milk is the greatest source of calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D for most Americans. So if we decide to ditch dairy, we have to find those nutrients somewhere else.
There’s obviously a balancing act here. We want to strategically reduce GHG emissions and reduce our overall carbon footprint. But we also still need certain nutrients to have a healthy, well-balanced diet. Based on this study, it seems to me that ending dairy production isn’t the answer. An extremely small gain in the climate-change fight causes big deficiencies with our diet.