Dairy accounts for 4% of global carbon emissions

cowsAccording to a recent life cycle analysis by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the dairy industry accounts for 4% of global carbon emissions. As reported by “The Ecologist” :

The vast majority of emissions, 93 per cent, take place on the farm, which includes the production and transport of all inputs used, such as fertiliser, pesticides and feed for the dairy herd.

However, the total figure excludes emissions from land use, capital goods such as farm equipment and buildings and retail stage activities such as refrigeration and disposal of packaging.

The FAO estimated back in 2006 that the livestock sector as a whole contributed 18 per cent of global GHG emissions but this is the first of its sector specific reports. It will publish similar analysis on the pig, poultry and beef sectors over the next 12 months.

Read the full article from “The Ecologist” here.

The UN wants to use this report to push for more western style intensive farming methods, which yields less carbon emissions per unit of milk output. Sub-Saharan Africa produces 7.5kg CO2 per unit, South Asia 4.5kg and Western Europe and N.America average about 1-2 kg per unit of milk. 

This report leaves a lot of questions unanswered:

- What is the total quantum of milk consumed in the west? What is the per capita milk consumption in these three regions? Should we be looking at total carbon emissions from total milk consumption and then make a comparison?

- Are the milk farms in Sub-Saharan Africa a part of subsistence and biodiverse farms, where the total carbon emissions of the farm itself may be negligable compared to a large industrial complex? 

- Large scale industrial farms have their own mega problems, such as the heavy use of hormones and antibiotics, sewage that pollutes water bodies.  Animals are treated inhumanely from birth to the slaughterhouse.  How are these addressed?

- Raising cows free range is a more humane way, and some farmers have discovered that alfafa and flax seed fed to cows instead of corn and soy (which again is a product of heavy industrialised agriculture) reduces their methane emissions.

Defining an environmental issue too narrowly in terms of carbon emissions can bring about wrong solutions. Should we as society be moving towards less milk consumption, rather than towards mega industrial farms?

The FAO report can be downloaded here.  It admits:

While this study deals solely with GHG emissions, it is important to highlight the importance of assessing a broader range of environmental issues, including water resource degradation,biodiversity loss, erosion and other non-GHG impacts. The sustainability of the dairy sector needs to be understood within this broader context, and analysed considering the synergies and trade-offs among competing environmental, social and economic objectives.


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Posted by on Apr 26 2010. Filed under Agriculture/Food, World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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