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From the moment we are old enough to be aware of advertisements, we’re bombarded with messages about how dairy is an essential part to a healthy diet. Want to grow up and have strong bones? Better drink your milk! Want to be like your favorite celebrities and athletes? Again, the answer is milk.

More than any other food we consume, dairy is associated with calcium. As the be-all and end-all of calcium, cow’s milk has become a veritable superstar in the “healthful food” world. While it could be argued that the beginning of the marketing of dairy for its calcium content began after World War I, conveniently amidst a dairy surplus, the dairy industry has spawned into one of the most lobbied for industries in the U.S. In 2013, the dairy industry spent over $8 million on lobbying, and has already spent over $3.5 million on lobbying in 2014. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. federal government collects “industry fees” for dairy checkoff programs. Essentially, the government collects these fees from the producers of agricultural commodities to promote and “research” that particular commodity. As lobbying interests rally the government to put these dollars towards promoting dairy, the cycle perpetuates itself.

Regardless of the questionable ethics of shamelessly marketing dairy to a population that is already in the midst of an obesity epidemic (cheese is the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet), the promotion of milk has had other consequences. As corporations find more ways to slip more dairy into their products (Between 2009 and 2011, Dominos entered a $35 million partnership through a checkoff plan that lead them to put MORE cheese on their pizzas – others in the industry followed suit) they are rewarded with financial gains and encouraged to drive up the market for dairy.

At current rates, U.S. dairy farms produce 196 billion pounds of milk a year. In 2013, the U.S. dairy industry produced 11.1 billion pounds of cheese (excluding cottage cheese), 1.86 billion pounds of butter, and 1,052 million pounds of regular fat ice cream.

Where there’s and overabundant supply of dairy, there’s demand, right? … oh wait. While it is clear that the proliferation of the dairy is great for the U.S. economy, it turns out that it is not so great for the planet.

Dairy and Water Use

Global water footprint of animal agriculture is 2,422 billion cubic meters of water (one-forth of the total global water footprint), 19 percent of which is related to dairy cattle.  This might seem like a huge amount of water, but considering that in the U.S. alone there are currently nine million dairy cows in the United States and that in a dairy operation, water is required to hydrate cows, clean parlor floors, walls, and milking equipment, water use adds up fast.

Water for Cleaning Dairy Facilities

A dairy facility that uses an automatic “flushing” system for manure can use up to 150 gallons of water per cow, per day. A medium size dairy factory farm facility houses between 200 and 700 cows (the EPA considers 700 dairy cattle the lower limit for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Using the maximum figure, this would mean that a medium sized dairy factory farm would use 104,850 gallons of water every day – just for flushing purposes.

Water for Hydrating Dairy Cows

Milk is about 87 percent water, so a cow that is constantly producing milk needs to sufficiently hydrated. A cow can drink 23 gallons of water a day, so given a facility with 700 cows, 16,100 gallons of water would be used everyday for the cow’s drinking water.

Water for Feed

A study published by Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra found that 98 percent of milk’s footprint can be traced back to a cows food. Dairy cows eat a LOT. Constantly producing milk is a huge drain on a dairy cows metabolism, and they need to replenish that energy through their food. According to the findings of Dan Putnam, a plant scientist at the University of California-Davis, it takes around six pounds of alfalfa to produce one gallon of milk. It takes 683 gallons of water to produce just six pounds of alfalfa. A dairy cow can produce up to seven gallons of milk a DAY, meaning that 4,781 gallons of water are used per cow everyday for their food needs.

When you add up the water used for food, water, and cleaning the facility the average dairy cow uses 4,954 gallons of water per day. When you multiply that to account for the 700 cows on a dairy factory farm that is 3.4 million gallons of water EVERY DAY. Accounting for the nine million dairy cows there are in the U.S. that number is astronomical.

Around 21 percent of U.S. dairy comes from California. While this might not seem like a big deal, when you consider the extent of the current drought that is happening in California and how much water the dairy industry uses, that 21 percent is pretty significant.

Milk Life? How About Milk Destruction ... How the Dairy Industry is Eating Up the Planet

Carbon Emissions and Dairy

According to the FAO’s report, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions From the Dairy Sector: a Life Cycle Assessment,” estimates that the global dairy sector contributes four percent of total global anthropogenic GHG emissions. This figure includes emissions allotted to milk production, processing and transportation, and the emissions from fattening and slaughtering dairy cows.

By and large, methane is the most troubling GHG produced by dairy cattle as it has the ability to trap up to 100 times more heat into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Around 52 percent of the GHGs produced by dairy is methane. It is estimated that cows produce between 250 and 500 liters of methane a day. Going back to our dairy factory farm with 700 cows, that is up to 350,000 liters or 325,500 pounds of methane pumped into the atmosphere every day. Gross.

To put that into perspective, a single fracking well is responsible for the release of 30,684 pounds of methane a day.

In developed countries, the FAO estimates that nitrous oxide makes up for another 27 percent of dairy cattle’s GHG emission. Where methane has a heat trapping potential nearly 100 times larger than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide has a global warming potential almost 300 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Milk Life? How About Milk Destruction ... How the Dairy Industry is Eating Up the Planet

Making Dairy Products

So far, we’ve considered the water usage and GHG emissions involved in the production of milk.  To create the many dairy products people enjoy requires even more water and yield higher GHG emissions.

A report by MotherJones breaks down the number of gallons of water used to grow feed for cows to produce our favorite dairy produce, here are the highlights:  

  • 1 cup of yogurt requires 35 gallons
  • 1 scoop of ice cream requires 42 gallons
  • 2 slices of cheese requires 50 gallons
  • 1 cup of greek yogurt requires 90 gallons
  • 1 stick of butter requires 109 gallons

In comparison, it takes nine gallons of water to produce one glass of soy milk.

For the greenhouse gas emissions associated with dairy products, the Environmental Working Group the production of four ounces of yogurt emits the same amount of GHGs as driving your car for over a mile. For four ounces of cheese, that number shoots up to the emissions equivalent to driving three and a half miles. Of all animal products, the Environmental Working group ranks cheese as having the third highest GHG emissions, coming in right after beef and lamb. For every one kilogram (about four, eight ounce blocks) of cheese produced, 13.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the air. On average, an American consumes 31 pounds of cheese a year. So, an individual’s cheese habit alone could contribute 401 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, annually.

Milk Life? How About Milk Destruction ... How the Dairy Industry is Eating Up the Planet

Do You Really Need Dairy?

Considering the high cost that the dairy industry has on precious water resources and greenhouse gas emissions, suddenly that bowl of ice cream might not seem so cool. Some people might not be ready to dive into a dairy-free lifestyle head first, but there are many small steps you can take to lessen your impact on the planet. For example, if you chose to replace your two scoops of dairy ice cream for a dairy-free alternative, you could save 84 gallons of water from that single choice.
Milk Life? How About Milk Destruction ... How the Dairy Industry is Eating Up the Planet
The average American consumes around 630 pounds of dairy every year, so the less you consume, the larger your impact. If a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds and it takes 683 gallons of water just to produce the feed for a dairy cow to produce that gallon,

Around 25 percent of the American population is lactose-intolerant, which means that dairy-free alternatives are readily available for anyone who is looking to avoid this particular food group. When you also take into account the fact that we don’t need milk to get nutrients like calcium, lessening your dairy consumption can seem much easier. To get you started, check out these non-dairy cheese recipes, these 5 Killer Vegan Mac and Cheese, and these out of this world dairy-free pizzas. You can even start by trying almond, soy, or coconut milk in your cereal instead of regular!

As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future.

By choosing dairy-free alternatives for milk, you can drastically cut your carbon footprint and save precious water supplies. With the wealth of available plant-based options available, it has never been easier to eat with the planet in mind.

Our everyday food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future.
Join One Green Planet’s #EatForthePlanet movement.

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407 comments on “Milk Life? How About Milk Destruction: The Shocking Truth About the Dairy Industry and the Environment”

Click to add comment
Floyd Lawson
6 Months Ago

Said it all above.

Floyd Lawson
6 Months Ago


Great job with this article! Good details and excellent conclusion. You really know your stuff. I am well versed on the latest research in this area, and you are a head of the curve. Your are exactly right on the obvious outcome that we must all face: a plant based diet is the only way forward for individuals and the planet. I know you will be ridiculed by the those that think their small view of the world and their even smaller view of science some how entitles them to an opinion. Keep writing! I will look for your other articles.


Raheel Pervaiz
10 Months Ago

what the hell can we eat then and dont say vegan because as hard as I tried my hair started thinning and falling out.

1 Years Ago

This is probably the dumbest and uninformed article I have read about milk in my entire life!!

Milk Rocks!!!

Sarper Sanlı
1 Years Ago

If we want to save water we should first stop washing our cars before stopping to use it to produce dairy products.

Nicola Jane Sumner
1 Years Ago

Rice milk and oat milk...uk is backward, no vegan ice cream to be found & limited product availability

John Laycock
1 Years Ago

Coconut milk:)

Debbie Barbour
1 Years Ago

Sign in Tesco - and when vegans challenged them on their FB page, WE were censored.

Patrice Moriarity Crawford
1 Years Ago

Exactly!! I hate the "Milk Life" commercials, or any dairy commercial for that matter.

Sanaa Greetings
1 Years Ago

Plant based milk is the best. People who are in this business must do massive publicity....to make people aware about the taste and the benefits of their products. It will take time but nothing is impossible.


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