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The dairy industry impacts some of the world’s most sensitive environmental areas covering a wide range of ecosystems. As milk is not usually shipped internationally and is instead distributed and consumed in its country of origin, the impact of dairy in a given place is primarily a local issue. Dairy farms are often family-owned and seen as essential for rural employment.

Despite its local focus, dairy is indeed a large, global industry—there are approximately 250 million dairy cows in the world. Production systems and practices vary widely across countries. With demand for dairy rising as the world’s population grows, it is essential to improve the sustainability of dairy production globally.

The dairy industry poses a number of challenges to the health of the environment. Methane emitted from cows’ digestions process—called enteric fermentation—and their manure is the most critical potential impact of dairy production. Water pollution is another major concern, as manure and nutrients run into waterways. The dairy industry is also responsible for land conversion, particularly in the tropics, to grow the feed required by dairy herds

WWF envisions a global marketplace in which all dairy is sustainable. By working to engage companies in supporting sustainable production, bringing together stakeholders to discuss pertinent issues, and developing sustainable measurement and reporting guidelines for the industry, WWF Is helping to make dairy a healthy choice for you and the planet.

250 million

Despite its local focus, dairy is indeed a large, global industry—there are approximately 250 million dairy cows in the world.


Dairy industry impacts

Cattle, including dairy cattle, add substantial amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. They contribute to the conversion of natural habitat to agricultural land as they eat an increasing proportion of grain produced from agriculture. Cattle are also one of the most significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation.

Climate change

Dairy production has a considerable effect on global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2010 the global dairy sector contributed 4% to global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Dairy operations can consume large volumes of water to grow feed, manage manure and process products. Additionally, manure runoff from dairy farms pollutes water resources. The increased nutrients in local waterways promote the growth of algae, which chokes off oxygen to other plant and animal life.

Habitat conversion

Currently over two-thirds of the world's agricultural land is used for maintaining livestock, both for meat and dairy. One-third of the world's land suffers desertification due in large part to deforestation, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices.

Livestock farming is one of the main contributors to soil erosion around the world. Turning forests into pasture, overgrazing and soil impaction from cattle’s hooves can lead to extreme loss of topsoil and organic matter that could take decades or centuries to replace.

Airborne emissions of ammonia can damage downstream habitats, resulting in the loss of species diversity. The output of particulate matter and odor from on-farm activities can negatively impact air quality.

Animal Health and Welfare

Improper handling of dairy cattle frequently raises public concern. Cattle lacking proper care tend to be more stressed and less productive. Disease in cattle can limit export options, pose supply risks and contribute to production inefficiencies.

What WWF Is Doing

Dairy industry, cows

Masai farmer John Ole Karia with his cow.

WWF works to improve the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the dairy industry. In 2009, WWF and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy formed a transformative partnership based on a shared commitment to creating a more sustainable dairy industry. The partnership—which was renewed in 2011—has been beneficial to the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Commitment, which helps the U.S. dairy industry reduce environmental impact across the entire value chain—from grass to glass.

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