The dairy sector is one of the leading markets in the world and is intensely competitive, especially between its leading players. Nonetheless, the sector is marred by unsustainable practices as well as social, economic and environmental problems. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated in a press release in 2006 that: “large dairy herds cause(s) wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion”. As a result, Fairfood International is interested in addressing these aspects in the global dairy industry.
Milk is essential for nutrition and is a good source of calcium which helps in the proper development of bones and teeth. There are multiple milk production systems worldwide ranging from small and medium-scale to large-scale industrial dairy farming. The definition of these scales can differ from country to country, depending on its level of development. Smaller farms usually have barns with open grassy pastures where cattle can graze and find shelter. However, larger farms have a tendency to confine their cattle to barren fences or, in colder climates, closed shelters.
Milk and cheese are the main products which come from the dairy industry with Asia as the biggest consumer in the world (38%), followed by Europe (30%) and, in third, North America (13%).
The majority of companies aim to operate as efficiently as possible to gain the competitive edge; however, this can often leave room for the disregard of sustainability principles.
A new trend is emerging globally in which large corporations and big financial players are setting up mega-farms to capture global milk supply. The shift to such large-scale farms will undoubtedly have unprecedented consequences for the environment and health.
Forestland is mainly damaged through the conversion of its natural states into pastures more suited for cattle rearing, in many cases causing major deforestation. Deforestation is the removal of the native rainforest or woodlands into less biodiverse ecosystems such as pastures. The effects are the extinction of animal and plan species and contribution to climate change.
In the Amazon, biodiversity loss through deforestation is rife because large amounts of forests are cleared to create pastures for grazing. Although it is true that much of this grazing land is used for beef cattle, a significant amount still goes towards dairy cows, as well. It should also be acknowledged that when the Amazon is cut down to plant soy, a large amount of this soy is being used as animal feed both dairy and beef cattle.
When taking all of this into consideration, the global dairy sector is clearly not sustainable. But all is not lost. Farmers, even at the large scale, can switch to using more contemporary farming methods as well as efficiency of scale. There are also certification labels and quality systems to jumpstart a more sustainable dairy industry. For examples of the many good practices available in the dairy industry, take a look back at “Milking the cow dry” from earlier in our Animal Farm series.< Back