Changing winds: Dairy’s GHG emissions don’t match the rhetoric

By Dave Natzke

All the anti-livestock rhetoric since 2006 has produced 25% of all global greenhouse (GHG) emissions.

OK, so I’m exaggerating. But there has been a lot of “hot air” related to the dairy industry’s role in GHG emissions as a result of the 2006 United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options.” That report – which one author now admits was exaggerated –  claimed livestock agriculture contributed 18% of the world’s GHG emissions, even more than emissions from all transportation. Anti-meat and anti-dairy groups use those estimates to call for “Meatless Mondays” and a reduction in dairy product consumption as a means to “save the planet.” According to Trent Loos, (, that estimate is already showing up in textbooks.

A chief challenger of the 2006 UN report is University of California-Davis associate professor and air quality specialist Frank Mitloehner. Most recently, Mitloehner shared information at Alltech’s International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium.

Mitloehner’s presentation came shortly after the release of another UN/FAO report, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector – A Life Cycle Analysis.” That report estimated global milk production, processing and transportation contributed just 2.7% of global GHG emissions. Add emissions related to meat produced from dairy animals, it’s 4%.

The report focuses on the entire dairy food chain, from feed production and on-farm emissions, to emissions associated with milk processing, packaging and transportation of dairy products to retailers.

The new report also indicates improved milk production efficiency is a major factor in limiting GHG emissions per unit of milk produced. Dairies located in North America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand had the lowest carbon footprint. In contrast, the biggest dairy GHG emitters were in Central and South America, Western Europe, West Asia and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The news is even better in the United States. Research underway through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, working with the University of Arkansas Applied Sustainability Center and other experts, attributes about 2% of total U.S. GHG emissions to its dairy industry.

That U.S. analysis gathered data from more than 500 farms and 50 processing plants across the United States, analyzing 150,000 round trips transporting milk from farm to processor. Abstracts of the research have been accepted for presentation at the 7th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector (Sept. 22-24, 2010 in Italy). A series of articles based on the detailed findings will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals in 2010, with publication expected in 2011

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is taking additional measures to further reduce GHG emissions by another 25% by 2020.

Mitloehner remains skeptical of UN FAO’s estimate of 18% GHG contributions from livestock production, saying the organization is comparing apples and oranges when placing livestock agriculture next to transportation, for example. Total GHG from transportation is not accurately estimated, he said.

“If you know the life cycle (emissions’ contribution) of livestock, but you don’t know what the life cycle of all the other industries, and you don’t know what the total is, how can you tell what percentage the livestock contribution is?”


■ Find the 98-page report, Greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy sector, at

■ For information about International Dairy Federation global projects aimed at reducing dairy emissions,

■ For more information on the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s sustainability commitment, go to or e-mail: