The world’s 13 largest dairy farms emit the same amount of greenhouse gasses as the entire nation of the United Kingdom, the sixth largest economy in the world, according to the award-winning VegNews (which claims to be the largest vegan media brand in the world).
The Californian media company’s incorrect report has added to the damage to the dairy industry from the controversial “Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy is Heating Up the Planet and Hollowing Rural Communities” report by the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
The IATP report was about the world’s 13 largest milk processing companies, not farms as mistakenly reported by VegNews.
The IATP report said Amul, Lactalis, Saputo, Danone, Fonterra, Yili, Dairy Farmers Of America, DMK Deutsches Milchkontor, California Dairies, Arla Foods, and Nestle, together emitted more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than the BHP Australian mining, oil and gas giant, or the US oil company ConocoPhillips (both of which are major polluters, according to IATP).
Although the report has been carried by most of the world’s leading media organisations (and exaggerated or misinterpreted by VegNews and others), most of the dairy companies (which have combined turnover of about €130bn) haven’t responded individually.
However, Carolyn Mortland, Fonterra’s director of global sustainability, said the IATP Report contains several inaccuracies, including significantly over-estimating Fonterra emissions at 44m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent rather than 22m tonnes.
“In contrast, a comprehensive and peer-reviewed report released earlier this year found that the carbon footprint of New Zealand’s on-farm milk supply is less than one-third of the global average, and up to 30% lower than greenhouse gas footprints of European and North American milk production.
“There is more work to be done, but reports such as the IATP do little to contribute to public debate or new ideas.”
Dr Frank Mitloehner, of University of California, Davis, one of the world’s top 40 rated universities, ranked No 1 globally for veterinary medicine, said: “The IATP’s paper is rich with misleading statements.”
A faculty member in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, California, which specialises in measurements and mitigation of greenhouse gases, Dr Mitloehner has said the most important goal in his career is making animal agriculture climate-neutral.
He says ending ruminant livestock would reduce 2030 global warming by a mere one-tenth of a degree, and a large reduction of cattle herds in a country like Ireland will not significantly reduce global warming, compared to the warming contributions of fossil fuel.
He recently said it is because of flawed GHG assessment methodologies that Ireland, with a population of less than 5m, has been given a bigger carbon footprint than Los Angeles, with 13m people.
“It’s my job to point out misinformation related to my expertise”, he said, responding via his GHGGuru Twitter feed to the IATP report.
He said agriculture is responsible for 24% of global GHGs, and beef and dairy cattle contribute 9% of GHGs. But the IATP report says the world’s food system is responsible for up to 37% of all global emissions.
Dr Mitloehner said IATP’s claim that combined emissions of the largest dairy corporations rose 11% in two years is due to them merging with and acquiring other companies.
And emissions only grew by 18% from 2005 to 2015, while demand for dairy products grew 30%.
“This speaks to the efficiency of the dairy sector as it works to feed a population that will triple in our lifetime.”
Without improvements made by the dairy sector, total emissions from dairy would have increased by nearly 38%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.
Dr Mitloehner said IATP’s comparing GHGs from livestock to fossil fuels is an apples to oranges comparison.
“Methane from animals warms the planet differently than carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.
As methane is emitted, it’s also destroyed in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels accumulates in the atmosphere, continuing to warm long after it’s emitted.
He said cattle can be part of a climate solution, for feeding a growing population and curbing climate change.
Dr Judith Bryans, president of the International Dairy Federation (IDF), and Donald Moore, executive director, Global Dairy Platform (GDP), also responded to the IATP report.
In a joint statement, they said the report contains several inaccuracies, and does not reflect the reality of the dairy sector.
They said the United Nations determines sustainability must be based on three pillars: economic, social and environmental, and explained how the dairy industry measures up to these three pillars.
The dairy sector helps to feed the world, delivering vital nutrition in the form of high-quality protein and essential vitamins and minerals.
Globally, dairy provides 5% of energy, 10% of protein, and 9% of fat in the diet, as well as vital nutrients like calcium, iodine, B vitamins, zinc and phosphorus.
This rich nutrition helps populations, particularly in developing nations, avoid malnutrition and poor health outcomes.
Dairy also provides for the livelihoods of one billion people, including 133 million female dairy farmers.
“A sustainable dairy industry must also be one which provides a livelihood to farmers, processors and all others along the supply chain.
If farmers were always paid below the cost of production, as implied in this report, put simply, the industry would not exist, and production would not be increasing.
Only 0.3% of dairy farms have more than 100 cows, the average herd size is three cows.
Most of the milk is processed through co-operatives, owned by and run in the interests of farmers.
“It cannot be assumed that smaller-scale farming is more efficient and is somehow better at delivering sustainability improvements or economic returns,” noted the IDF and GDP representatives.
“This report seems to argue against international trade in dairy products.
“However, international trade ensures consumers in countries that are not self-sufficient can access the nutrition they need.
“The alternative would be either higher food prices or lower nutrient intake.”
“The dumping of milk in response to Covid-19 in some regions was a temporary phenomenon in response to extraordinary market disruption caused by the pandemic, the likes of which the world has not seen in a century.
“This can’t be used to provide any valuable insight into how the industry should operate long term.”
“It’s very easy to put out a report that criticises and tries to paint a simple picture of a sector, which doesn’t contain all of the nuances or realities of how the global dairy sector nourishes the world with nutrient-rich, safe foods, and does so in a manner that strives for continued environmental improvements, while providing livelihoods to a large percentage of the world’s population.”
However, the responses to the IATP haven’t reassured people in the livestock industries, as can be seen in comments on Dr Frank Mitloehner’s GHGGuru Twitter blog.
One said, “We are just five to 10 years away before we’re publicly shamed for not eating artificial meat, fired from a job after being photographed at a barbecue, and just generally ostracised for our dietary misbehaviour.”
There was also a comment from ex-IFA president Joe Healy.
“What chance do we farmers have for fairness in the climate debate when the likes of IATP put such misleading comments into the public domain?
“Thank you, GHGGuru, for the facts”.
Aimable Uwizeye, PhD, livestock policy officer at the FAO, also commented, saying IATP used FAO emission data inaccurately.
In 1986, Mark Ritchie, a trade policy analyst for the state of Minnesota, incorporated the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as a non-profit, tax-exempt organisation, with the mission of fostering sustainable rural communities and regions.
In the 1990s, IATP expanded to include promotion of positive alternatives to economically, socially and environmentally destructive agricultural and trade practices.