270 million

Despite its local focus, dairy is indeed a large, global industry—there are approximately 270 million dairy cows in the world.

Milk production takes place all around the world. Global demand for dairy continues to increase in large part due to population growth, rising incomes, urbanization and westernization of diets in countries such as China and India. With this increasing demand for dairy, there is growing pressure on natural resources, including freshwater and soil. WWF works with dairy farmers, industry groups, and other stakeholders in various countries to conserve and protect natural resources and habitat.

Millions of farmers worldwide tend approximately 270 million dairy cows to produce milk. Milk production impacts the environment in various ways, and the scale of these impacts depends on the practices of the dairy farmers and feed growers.

Dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. Poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources. And unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands, and forests.

WWF envisions a global marketplace in which all dairy is produced as sustainably as possible. By working to engage dairy farmers, co-ops, companies and others in promoting the use of sustainable practices, WWF aims to transform the milk production industry.

Pulling back the curtain on food “expiration” dates

You probably have a carton of milk in your fridge with a date inked on it—one that you’ve come to think indicates impending decay.
Illustrations of milk with expiration date crossed out


dairy farm

Dairy cows add substantial amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In some places they contribute to the conversion of natural habitat to agricultural land due to the increasing demand for feed crops such as corn, alfalfa and soy. Dairy operations can also be significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation when manure and feed crop production are poorly managed. Farmers can significantly reduce environmental impacts through the use of better management practices and technologies.

Climate change

Dairy production has a considerable effect on climate change due to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. In the US, the greatest sources of these emissions in milk production include feed production, enteric fermentation and manure management.


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.


Dairy operations can consume large volumes of water to grow feed, water cows, manage manure and process products. Additionally, manure and fertilizer runoff from dairy farms can pollute water resources. The increased nutrients in local waterways contribute to the growth of algae, which reduces oxygen for aquatic plant and animal life.


Currently over two-thirds of the world's agricultural land is used for maintaining livestock, including beef and dairy cows. One-third of the world's land suffers desertification due, in large part, to deforestation, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices. In some circumstances, dairy cows can contribute to healthy habitats through well-managed grazing.

Soil Health

Livestock farming is one of the main contributors to soil erosion around the world. Turning forests into pasture or feed crop production areas, 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. On the other hand, well-managed manure application and grazing can improve the soil health of pastures and crop lands.

Animal Health and Welfare

Improper handling of dairy cows decreases the productivity of cows due to stress and ill health, and leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Disease in cattle can limit export options, pose supply risks and contribute to production inefficiencies.

What WWF Is Doing

dairy cows

WWF and the Innovation Center for US Dairy

Since 2009, WWF and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy have engaged in a transformative partnership based on a shared commitment to creating a more sustainable dairy industry. WWF works with the U.S. dairy industry to reduce environmental impacts across the entire value chain—from grass to glass – through development of measurement and reporting guidelines and promotion of best practices and opportunities for improved sustainability performances among farmers.

Working with Partners

WWF champions sustainable solutions by sharing innovative ideas, key learnings and global on-the-ground expertise with stakeholders in the US and elsewhere. We work with our partners to create new relationships, networks and opportunities to advance the sustainability of dairy. WWF also studies agricultural practices globally and engages with their dairy industries to advance regional and ecosystem-specific solutions for sustainable production.