Skimming the Carbon Footprint of Milk

, 9 minute read

Quick summary: A necessity or a burden? The dairy industry has produced a variety of milk and its by-products over centuries and today it is on the cusp of a negative climate impact. The global dairy community is accelerating climate action and working to reduce its impact on the planet. Let’s look at what the future hold for the industry and how optimizing productivity and reducing emissions can sustain billions of livelihoods in the future.

The global dairy food market size is US$700.06 billion in 2021 and the global dairy product market is around US$ 481.7 billion. Surely a colossal industry that is perishable and delicate. One in every six pints of milk produced globally is lost or discarded, amounting to a total of around 128 million tonnes of milk each year and dairy wastes of about 30%, according to new data published in The Guardian. The total carbon footprint of pure milk is 1120g CO2/L. 

The Dairy industry 

More than 80% of the world’s population regularly consume milk and its other dairy products. Dairy sector is the third largest provider of protein and fat for the humans and an important source of affordable nutrients to all. 

The dairy sector is made up of dairy farms that produce milk and dairy processing plants that work with milk and milk products. Consequently, the sector produces several milk varieties as well as its by-products, including cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. 

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  • 1 billion livelihoods supported by dairy sector 
  • 600 million people live on dairy farms 
  • 10% of world population depends on dairy farming 
  • 816 million tons of milk produced annually 
  • 44.4. litres of dairy products consumed per capita globally 

More than a quarter of 570 million farm holdings globally, with 150 million farmers are estimated to keep at least one milk animal. 

When we refer to diverse forms of milk, we mean milk from animals other than cows, such as buffalo, goats, sheep, camels, or reindeer. Milk has developed into a staple of many cultures’ everyday diets. India, the United States, the European Union, Russia, Pakistan, Brazil, China, Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico are the top milk-producing nations. 

Breeding, rearing, and milking cows are the steps in the dairy farming process. The process is intricate and comprises many steps that must be handled carefully.. 

Production and processing are the two main stages in the dairy product supply chain followed by storage and distribution. The dairy supply chain is a long and complex one with its own challenges. Read the grass to glass( story and its challenges

Impact of Climate change on the Dairy industry 

The changing weather patterns, market dynamics and dairy prices are some of the challenges that make it difficult to realize a competitive market for milk to the consumer. There is also a growing emphasis on sustainability and people are concerned about the  environmental impact, animal welfare and quality of food. 

Our planet needs to produce more food while conserving available land, water and energy resources and reducing GHG emissions. 

Livestock products are responsible for more GHG emissions than aother sources. The  emissions are a result of various complex biological processes. 

GHGs from farms include methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Methane primarily comes from cows and manure management. Nitrous oxide arises from manure management and fields. Carbon dioxide  emissions are associated with energy use, production and transportation of inputs and land use and the land use change. 

Rise and fluctuation in temperatures: drastic changes in temperature, heat waves, extreme weather events, etc. have become more common. Such changes will increase the likelihood that cows may contract diseases, have physical issues, and produce less milk. 

Decreased yield: Drought and flooding also accompany changes in temperature, which affect forage yields and feed quality. This results in higher costs for the cow, its production, and the farmer. 

New diseases: A cow needs a lot of resources, including water and nutritious soil-based feed. Milk production experiences problems when the spread of diseases has an impact on these scarce resources. 

Carbon Footprint of Milk 

GHG emissions associated with milk production arise from all the activities that are involved in cradle to grave dairy supply chains. These activites include agriculture inputs like fertilizers, fossil fuel for production of feed for animals, processing of concentrates in cattle feed plants, enteric fermentation, manure management and post harvest activities like processing of milk in cooperatives, conversion into dairy products and  distribution through retail supply chains. 

It is important to consider the Life Cycle Assessment methodology (LCA) to measure the Carbon footprint of milk. This helps to identify hotspots of GHG emissions and plan mitigation strategies

The carbon footprint of milk is the sum of net GHGs emitted throughout the life cycle of milk within a system boundary and where all inputs and outputs of the system are considered up to farm gate or beyond in the production cycle. The CF is expressed as  sum of all the GHGs converted into kg CO2 equivalent per kg of fat and protein corrected milk. 

In the dairy sector, water is utilized extensively for a variety of purposes, including growing feed, consuming it, hydrating cows, managing dung, and processing commodities. When pesticides and fertilizers contaminate such bodies of water, they cause reduced oxygen levels and harm to animal life. Currently, animals are raised on more than two-thirds of all agricultural land. Deforestation and grazing have increased as a result. They are now a significant cause of soil erosion and loss of organic matter.  

Methane emitted from enteric fermentation is the major hotspot contributing up to 75 per cent of the total GHG emissions of the dairy sector. 

Lowering emissions in the dairy value chain 

Additionally, research has shown that implementing energy-efficient technology in waste management and animal feeding might reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the global livestock industry by up to 30%. As a result, technology to turn animal waste into electricity has advanced. Digesters for biogas have been installed in this regard; they turn the biogas into fuel-grade gas. 

Native cattle can produce up to 10-15 kg of dung per day, which necessitates the development of waste management techniques to be utilized for plastering walls and floors in rural dwellings. Additionally, there have been advancements in the conversion of cow dung along with bio-based products to build composite materials that can replace virgin wood, concrete, synthetic wool, and plastic items in homes and workplaces. 

Reduction in Enteric Emissions can happen with 

  • Improved health and nutrition for dairy animals increases milk production and the GHGs are reduced by limiting the number of inputs required for a given output of milk. 
  • Adding lipids to cattle diets decreases enteric emissions without increasing fats. 
  • Harvesting forages at optimum maturity reduces methane emissions 

Manure Management 

  • Anaerobic digestion has the potential to decrease GHG emissions from manure 
  • Solid-liquid manure separation helps in reducing methane production from manure storage. 

Nitrogen losses 

  • Optimizing nitrogen applications using soil and manure tests reduce nitrogen losses 
  • Applying nutrients in the spring can increase plant uptake and reduce the nitrogen lost due to leaching

Carbon- Neutral dairy farming 

Through well-founded data, analytics and decision making carbon neutrality in dairy farming are within reach. According to current assessments, industrialized nations account for 25% and emerging nations for 75% of the worldwide GHG emissions from dairy farms, respectively. 

To begin with, global emissions reductions should be assessed using a uniform methodology. A common standard must be followed when measuring emissions from fertilizers, manure, and power use because they all emit distinct emissions at various rates. Methane emissions will be reduced through novel methods including the use of feed and slurry additives and the use of genomics to breed animals with high feed efficiency. Governments in a few places across the world are imposing carbon taxes as a surcharge on goods with direct emissions to reduce their usage. 

Donald Moore (Global Dairy Platform), stated: “By launching the Net Zero, Pathways to Low-Carbon Dairy initiative, the global dairy sector will demonstrate leadership in tackling climate change while protecting the vital role dairy plays in nutrition and socio-economic outcomes”. 

Dairy farms can participate in the carbon market. Carbon markets can help farms diversify their revenue streams and improve  environmental performance. Dairy farms can reduce emissions associated with producing milk and generate carbon credits Selling carbon credits, reducing emissions in supply chains and offering farmers incentives to reduce these emissions and creating renewable natural gas is popular with dairies.

Technology solutions 

Finding the sources of carbon emissions, improving efficiency, and cutting waste are some fundamental ways to reduce carbon emissions. To identify and quantify these hotspots, modern software uses approved environmental assessments. Over time, it has been noted that enteric emissions—methane from cow burps—and feed use are the two main sources of emissions on dairy farms. This kind of information is essential for lowering emissions by focusing on such emissions and enhancing efficiency and health. Example: Alltech E-CO2. 

Yeast culture is another popular method that can help increase production effectiveness while lowering an operation’s carbon footprint. A yeast culture called Yea-Sacc is based on the yeast strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yea-Sacc alters rumen activity by encouraging lactic acid-utilizing bacteria to grow and function better over time, which helps to maintain the pH of the rumen. Additionally, it serves to enhance nutritional consumption and digestion at the same time. These types of advancements enable cows to absorb more nutrients for increased milk output. 


The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that 36% of India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to its agri-food systems. In addition, 14.5% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are created by the supply chains for livestock. Additionally, a worldwide standard to quantify and lower emissions are required due to the rising demand for dairy products. The dairy industry hopes to have net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 thanks to technological improvements that have kept up with these concerns. 

TraceX’s blockchain powered climate solutions Trace Carbon is a one stop carbon management platform that helps companies accelerate their net zero journey. TraceX is also building a DMRV platform to build credible carbon credits with nature-based solutions.

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