How pleasant is it to see a herd of livestock, puppy-eyes creatures dozing off peacefully throughout the fields, luxuriating in the sun’s warmth? But, little do we know that these graceful, lovable animals can pollute the environment and induce climate change just as automobiles when reared on a mass scale.

Since childhood, we have been taught that cow’s milk is a nutrient-dense alternative that is critical for the growth of our bodies, so it is understandable that the truth about cow’s milk’s environmental and climatic implications can be astounding for many. As per the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the dairy sector’s greenhouse gas emissions elevated by 18% between 2005 and 2015 as the clamor for milk exceeded.

White and Black Kettles
White and Black Kettles | Image Credit – Kat Smith

So, adding milk to your caffeine or tea will account for two-thirds of the drink’s carbon emissions. A cup of coffee made with cow’s milk yields approximately 53g of CO2 equivalent. The same coffee without milk emits about 21g of CO2 equivalent, less than half the expanse. According to research, transitioning to non-dairy milk reduces greenhouse gas emissions by approximately half, so substituting dairy milk for non-dairy shrinks the carbon footprint of your morning coffee to around 26.5g CO2 equivalent.

Table of Contents

How does livestock cause climate change and global warming?

The beef and dairy farming industries are significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Methane accounts for approximately half of the absolute greenhouse gases emitted by this industry. Breaking it down, cows produce methane in two different ways: during digestion and waste disposal. Cows are ruminants, a type of animal that possess stomachs divided into four separate chambers. 

The rumen is the first chamber where a highly complicated ecosystem of microorganisms lives. Bacteria, fungi, and protozoa are a few examples. Bacteria and protozoa break down plant sugar and starch while others degrade the cellulose found in plant cell walls. The reticulum is the second chamber where difficult-to-digest plants, such as grass, are preserved. The grasses are regurgitated and ingested repeatedly. This repetitive chomping aids in the physical breakdown of the meals. The omasum is the third chamber that physically breaks down the food even more. 

The abomasum, or actual stomach, is the fourth chamber where the nutrition is extracted. After that, the food goes through the digestive system. In the rumen, a critical step known as enteric fermentation occurs. Bacteria degrade complex carbohydrates into simple sugars at this point. Bacterial enteric fermentation produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs) and harmful emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. VFAs are soaked up through the rumen walls and metabolized in the liver, used for energy.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that entraps 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide. It is also responsible for roughly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Methane levels in the environment have doubled over the last two centuries due to human-related pursuits such as livestock farming. This, in turn, has severe consequences for global warming, contributing to climate change and abnormal weather correlations.

Can we make cows produce less methane?

Old Man Milking a Cow
Old Man Milking a Cow | Image Credit – Jefferson Lucena

Cow’s diet significantly impacts the amount of methane they yield. Specific kinds of feeds generate more methane than others. Hay and grass, for instance, generate more methane compared to corn. Researchers are now exploring cow feed possibilities that may deliver minimal methane.

At present, experts are experimenting with feeding seaweed to cows. They are hoping that seaweed will be effective in inhibiting a particular enzyme. While the cow metabolizes its meals, that enzyme is employed to manufacture methane. According to a 2018 study, introducing seaweed to a cow’s eating plan can minimize methane emissions by up to half. However, an investigation revealed a dilemma with this remedy: cows don’t appear to enjoy the strong taste of seaweed!

What about other ruminants?

Cows, goats, and sheep produce milk and methane! Cows manufacture the most methane per animal in this cluster due to the more significant and heavier dimensions. However, according to some sources, sheep milk produces the most methane per volume of milk. If we are talking about accurate performance in the milk industry, goat milk may be more ecologically friendly and sustainable than cow milk because goats don’t necessitate as much acreage. 

Animal or plant-based milk?

Animal or plant-based milk
Animal or plant-based milk | Image Credit – Polina Tankilevitch

Plant-based milk is stirring up an uproar, ranging from coconut to hemp seeds and oats to soy. A large proportion of consumers are considering transitioning from dairy to plant-based options. Soy, oat, hemp, rice, and coconut milk are now readily accessible as plant-based alternatives. But, which is environmentally friendly, and which is the ultimate best?

Countless people are looking for alternative approaches to milk because of its ethical and ecological shortcomings. Moreover, despite the reality that these are not the worst variables compared to other anthropogenic activities, dairy milk sales have declined 13 percent in the last ten years.

According to assessments, one-quarter of adults in the United Kingdom now consume dairy-free milk. It is even more common among teenagers and adults, with one-third of 16 to 23-year-olds preferring plant-based options. Cow’s milk has markedly increased repercussions than plant-based options throughout all benchmarks. It produces approximately three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, ten times the amount of land, two to twenty times the amount of freshwater, and results in greater levels of eutrophication.

Swapping to plant-based choices is a way to decrease the environmental impact of your daily food intake. But, which non-dairy milk is the right fit? Well, it all comes down to the consequences we are most concerned with. Almond milk emits fewer greenhouse gases and less acreage than soy milk, but it necessitates more water and contributes to eutrophication. All options have a lower environmental impact than animal milk, but there is no definite victor across the board. It all boils down to your priorities!

Quick comparison to help you choose your morning glass of warm milk or latte!

comparison to help you choose your morning glass of warm milk
Comparison to help you choose your morning glass of warm milk | Image Credit – BBC

A minor change in the type of milk we prefer in our tea or coffee can contribute to a considerable proportion of our everyday greenhouse gas emissions. And for this very reason, milk substitutes, including hemp, soy, almond, rice, or coconut, are gaining worldwide recognition. Here is a detailed breakdown of the environmental and climatic implications of some of the most popular milk varieties.

Cow’s Milk

Impact on the environment: 3.4% of global greenhouse gas missions

Impact on natural resources: 30-50 gallons of water per cow per day

Cow’s milk is unquestionably the most prominent and commonly available type of milk. Regrettably, it seems to have maximum ecological consequences. Cow’s milk demands nine times the amount of land and emits three times the amount of carbon dioxide as any non-dairy milk substitute.

Goat’s milk

Impact on the environment: Higher carbon emissions than in terms of transportation

Impact on natural resources: Less land and water than cows

Goats yield dairy milk, which has the same environmental consequences as cows and other cattle, including forest degradation, water consumption, and carbon pollution. Goat’s milk is no more beneficial for the planet than cow’s milk, particularly in contrast to non-dairy, plant-based options.

Hemp milk

Impact on the environment: Seizes and removes more carbon than trees

Impact on natural resources: Promotes soil health and uses less water

Although hemp milk is not as popular as non-dairy milk, one should not underestimate its potential benefits. Hemp is said to have the potential to slow climate change because it soaks massive volumes of carbon from the environment, and its residues are readily biodegradable. They can also thrive without the application of synthetic insecticides.

Soy Milk

Impact on the environment: Emits less carbon compared to cows

Impact on natural resources: Uses 1/3 of water compared to cow’s milk

Soy milk is perhaps the most recognized substitute for dairy milk, and it is trendy among lactose-intolerant shoppers. It is also deemed one of the most environmentally friendly milk alternatives. Soy necessitates teensy water and pesticide use, occupies a tiny acreage, and transmits less than a third of the carbon pollution by cows.

If you’re sticking with dairy, read the labels.

If you're sticking with dairy, read the labels
If you’re sticking with dairy, read the labels | Image Credit – cottonbro

Folks can reduce their dairy consumption without eliminating cow’s milk entirely. When feasible, search for local producers to help mitigate carbon footprints in transportation. Pick organic milk from ranches that are mainly devoid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The total calorie concentration of the milk affects its carbon footprint as well. As per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization research, low-fat milk alternatives are linked to lower carbon output. Skim milk powder emits up to 9 percent fewer greenhouse gases per kilogram than whole milk powder.

To Wrap Up

Cows aren’t detrimental to the ecosystem in general overview; however, the climate and ecosystem tend to suffer when many of them are reared in profit-driven industrial units. Livestock farming, notably meat and dairy generation, is one of the planet’s most significant sources of climate-altering gases. 

Besides methane leaks from cows, cow manure contributes to land and water contamination hazards. Manure contains phosphorus and nitrogen, and when applied as compost on farms, floods can cause cow dung to drive off into freshwater resources. Dairy product racket is predicted to double by 2050 compared to 2000 due to alterations in dietary patterns, an increase in the global population, and economic growth in developing nations.

However, the take-home message here is that the most important thing you can do for the climate and ecosystem regarding food habits is to reduce the quantity and frequency of animal products in your eating plan. Dairy milk is an excellent place to begin.

(Last Updated on June 3, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Shradha Bhatta holds a Bachelors’s Degree in Social Work along with a Post-graduate degree in Project Management from Georgian College in Canada. Shradha enjoys writing on a variety of topics and takes pleasure in discovering new ideas. She likes traveling and spending time with nature. She is a very people-person who loves talking about climate change and alerting people to go green!