A commonly suggested solution to reduce greenhouse gas output has been to reduce or eliminate [the dairy] industry in favor of plant production.
A team of Virginia Tech researchers wanted to uncover the actual impact that these cows have on the environment.
The researchers found that the removal of dairy cows from the United States agricultural industry would only reduce greenhouse emissions by about 0.7 percent while significantly lowering the available supply of essential nutrients for humans.
“There are environmental impacts associated with the production of food, period. The dairy industry does have an environmental impact, but if you look at it in the context of the entire U.S. enterprise, it’s fairly minimal,” said Robin White, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences and a member of the research team. “Associated with that minimal impact is a very substantial provision of high quality, digestible, and well-balanced nutrients for human consumption.”
A significant reason why the impact of dairy cows on the environment is minimal is because of advancements in the industry over the last 50-plus years, White said. As with most industries, efficiency improves over time. To produce the same 1 billion kilograms of milk in 2007 as in 1944, it required just 21 percent of the animals, 23 percent of the foodstuffs, 35 percent of the water, and only 10 percent of the land.