Click on an image below to learn about the environmental impact of your food choices.
Dairy farms bring to mind bucholic pastures of black and white cows in green Vermont. The reality is that the production and consumption of dairy products contribute greatly to global warming. For example:
It takes a tremendous amount of water to produce a gallon of milk. In additon to the water that cows drink, water is needed to clean barns and machinery. Estimates of the amount of water needed per gallon of milk range from 650 to over 2,000 gallons. Most of what goes into a cow also has to come out, so this means massive pollution of streams and water supplies around dairy farms.
The summer of 2014 brought much news from Vermont about how dairy cow farms are polluting Lake Champlain. This was a fight between environmentalists concerned about Lake Champlain and dairy farmers, concerned about their livelihoods. James Maroney, a former dairy farmer and expert on environmental law, wrote how public tax subsidies are supporting this sad state of affairs while we all lose a valuable public resource: beautiful Lake Champlain.
Like all mammals, cows only produce milk after they have given birth. These gentle and caring mothers have their calves taken from them at birth so their milk can be used to make money feeding humans, not their newborn calves. If the calf is a male, and no good for producing milk, he is killed dumped. This is the dirty little secret of dairy farms, even ones claiming to be organic or free range. Mother cows have been known to jump fences and to cry for days after their calves are taken from them.
Cows' milk is the basis of many dairy products. According to Purdue University, it takes three gallons of milk to make a gallon of ice cream, 30 cups of milk to make a pound of butter, and 4 glasses of milk to make a container of yogurt. Will Tuttle wrote a concise essay on the environmental costs of consuming dairy products:
The production and consumption of dairy products is remarkably destructive to the earth, to our health, and to animals. One main problem is that dairy products—like meat—use and waste large amounts of plant matter. For example, researchers estimate that 2.5 acres of land can meet the food energy needs of 20 people eating potatoes, cabbage, or corn, but of only 2 people eating dairy products or chicken. Thus, 10 times as much plant material must be grown to eat dairy products, and this means much more pollution of streams from fertilizer and pesticide runoff than if people ate vegetables and grains directly. It also means that land is cleared of forests for growing grain to feed to dairy cattle, and for grazing. Forests provide wildlife habitat, build soil, and naturally purify streams. By reducing and eliminating dairy consumption, we could reforest large areas of land, purifying our air and water, and increasing habitat for birds, fish and other animals.
Cheese is especially destructive because it requires from 30 to 60 litres of milk to make just 1 kilo of cheese. The other high-fat products such as butter, cream, and ice cream also require enormous amounts of land, water, and fossil fuels, because so much grain is required for their production. This grain, and the land and resources used to grow it, could go instead to feeding hungry and starving people. Thus, eating milk products contributes to the shortage of food our world is experiencing, and the conflicts that this causes.
Dairy products also contribute significantly to global warming because the millions of cows imprisoned for milk production convert grass and grain into methane gas, which retains atmospheric heat even more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Milk products also require especially large amounts of petroleum as well, to run farm machinery needed for growing grains and grass to feed the cows, for housing and heating the animals, processing the milk, and keeping it refrigerated. These factors contribute to global warming and resource depletion.
Besides the obvious and unavoidable waste of land, petroleum, and grain, and the ecological devastation this causes, dairy operations produce products never intended by nature to be consumed by humans. Cows’ milk is intended for infant herd animals that weigh 150 kilograms in just 14 weeks! It is highly toxic to humans for many reasons, especially the fact that we have no rennin hormone like calves do to break down the casein protein in milk. Milk products have thus been linked with allergies, eczema, asthma, ear infections, sinus infections, diarrhoea, anaemia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease, multiple sclerosis, bronchitis, arthritis, leukaemia, and dental decay, as well as diabetes, arteriosclerosis, obesity, and other diseases of excess fat and protein.
Huge quantities of toxic pharmaceuticals are swallowed and injected to fight these diseases, and these toxins, once excreted, end up polluting the water. This is a serious source of water pollution surrounding urban centres.
Finally, there is the suffering of the cows, who are pushed to give more milk than they would naturally, and are forcibly inseminated (raped) against their will, with their beloved new-born babies being stolen from them so that we can steal their milk. All this misery pollutes the milk and our mental atmosphere, and gentle cows, who normally live 25 years, are worn out and sent to slaughter after only 4 to 5 years, to be replaced by their unfortunate daughters.
It takes over 650 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of milk. If you are concerned about availability of fresh water, you would be better off simply drinking water than indulging in milk. Other milk products, such as ice cream, cheese, and yogurt use even more water.
Natural News web site has a good descripton of why it takes so much water to produce a gallon of milk. They write:
here are many reasons why informed consumers are avoid consuming cow's milk today, such as the fact that milk increases stagnation and can promote sinusitis and asthma. There are humanitarian and ethical reasons, too; avoiding milk means not condoning the abuse of dairy cows on conventional dairy farms. But one of the most important reasons to consider avoiding the consumption of milk is the waste of water resources that go into its production.
It can take up to 2,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. The cow needs water to perform basic biological functions from day to day, and only a fraction of the water the cow consumes is actually converted into milk. The fact that it takes so much water to produce cow's milk means that anytime you or any consumer chooses to drink milk, the burden you place on the natural environment is a thousand times greater than if you were to consume water itself. Drinking one gallon of milk is like pouring 1,999 gallons of fresh water down the drain.
With water tables falling all around the world and shortages appearing now in the United States and throughout Asia, it becomes increasingly important for us to practice water conservation as consumers. We, as a species, simply cannot afford to live in an environment where water tables have dropped beyond our ability to pump water out of the ground. If we continue to use our water in wasteful ways, such as supporting animal products like beef, cheese and milk, then we will run out of water. Around the world, farmers and ranchers consume the vast majority of the water supply.
In not considering these issues, our mass consumption is leading us to an emergency on a global scale. We are looking at an approaching disaster in terms of the loss of fresh water supplies. We are using up water the same way we are using up oil; by draining underground aquifers that can't be replenished on a short-term schedule. Once they are drained, the future of human life on our planet will be significantly more challenging to sustain at current levels (if not impossible).
So we must look at the big picture and begin to make intelligent decisions about our consumption patterns. We must shift to plant-based foods if we are going to be able to sustain current population levels on planet Earth. We have to think in terms of what it costs the environment to produce the foods we consume. Every time you drink a gallon of water instead of a gallon of milk, you save 1,999 of fresh water in the natural environment. This means that you, by making a simple choice, can have a huge and measurable impact, a positive impact, on the world around you.
Many ethical vegetarians (opposed to killing animals for food on moral grounds) think that it is fine to drink milk and consume dairy products. After all, the reasoning goes, the cow is not killed in the process of providing milk to humans. Ethical vegans say that because dairy cows lead such miserable lives, the process of getting cows' milk tortures cows during their lives and then kills them at about 1/4 of their natural lifespan when they no longer produce large quantities of milk. In either case, there are alternative, plant-based milks that are kind to cows. Note: the same issues that apply to dairy cows also apply to goats used for their ability to produce milk for humans.
Here is a brief summary of the lives of dairy cows from PETA:
Cows produce milk for the same reason that humans do: to nourish their young. In order to force the animals to continue giving milk, factory farm operators typically impregnate them using artificial insemination every year. Calves are generally taken from their mothers within a day of being born—males are destined for veal crates or barren lots where they will be fattened for beef, and females are sentenced to the same fate as their mothers.
After their calves are taken away from them, mother cows are hooked up, several times a day, to milking machines. These cows are genetically manipulated, artificially inseminated, and often drugged to force them to produce about four and a half times as much milk as they naturally would to feed their calves.
Animals are often dosed with bovine growth hormone (BGH), which contributes to a painful inflammation of the udder known as “mastitis.” (BGH is used widely in the U.S. but has been banned in Europe and Canada because of concerns over human health and animal welfare.)According to the industry’s own figures, between 30 and 50 percent of dairy cows suffer from mastitis, an extremely painful condition.
A cow’s natural lifespan is about 25 years, but cows used by the dairy industry are killed after only four or five years. An industry study reports that by the time they are killed, nearly 40 percent of dairy cows are lame because of the intensive confinement, the filth, and the strain of being almost constantly pregnant and giving milk. Dairy cows’ bodies are turned into soup, companion animal food, or low-grade hamburger meat because their bodies are too “spent” to be used for anything else.
Male calves—”byproducts” of the dairy industry—are generally taken from their mothers when they are less than 1 day old. Many are shipped off to barren, filthy feedlots to await slaughter. Others are kept in dark, tiny crates where they are kept almost completely immobilized so that their flesh stays tender. In order to make their flesh white, the calves are fed a liquid diet that is low in iron and has little nutritive value. This heinous treatment makes the calves ill, and they frequently suffer from anemia, diarrhea, and pneumonia.
Frightened, sick, and alone, these calves are killed after only a few months of life so that their flesh can be sold as veal. All adult and baby cows, whether raised for their flesh or their milk, are eventually shipped to a slaughterhouse and killed.
There are so many delicious optons other than cows' milk. Nut milks (such as almond), soy milk, oat milk, and even rice milk provide a creamy taste without hurting cows. You can even make your own milks; vegan cook use cashews to make creamy soups, pies and even lasagne. There are soy and nut ice creams and yogurt, and even vegan cheese. Just read the labels and make sure the products do not contain casein (the protein from milk and a known carcinogen) or whey (an acidy by-product of yogurt and cheese). You don't need cows' milk to bake or make other delicious foods - and the calves need their mothers' milk more than you do.