Perspective is a powerful thing. I often think that about perspective and the role it plays in shaping people’s opinions about dairy. People tend to see dairy through a variety of lenses. It’s emotional – ice cream in summertime, cream in your morning coffee or pizza on a Friday night. It’s nutritional – the milk you drank as a kid to build strong bones. If you’re a dairy farmer, it’s practical, economic, cultural — because it’s your livelihood and the business your family built from the ground up. And while a passionate vegan might perceive dairy in a negative light, it becomes a fundamental human need when seen through the eyes of parents in rural China struggling to nourish their children with the vital vitamins and nutrients they need to thrive and grow.
The fact is, the dairy industry touches billions of people around the world, so it can’t be accurately assessed from a single perspective. You have to pull back and take a bird’s eye view. From that vantage point, you can see the full picture and grasp dairy for what it is — a comprehensive global ecosystem that nourishes people, sustains economies and communities and is increasingly good for the planet. Dairy encompasses the 6 billion people who eat and drink its products annually, as well as the 600 million people who live and work on the world’s 133 million dairy farms. And 1 billion people who rely on the dairy sector to support their livelihoods and communities.
What would our world be like without dairy cows?
U.S. dairy farmers have a proud legacy as responsible stewards of the land and animals under their care and continually seek out innovative farming practices that enable them to be anenvironmental solution. However, there are people who question the dairy industry’s ability to be good for both people and the planet, and some even believe the environment would be better off if we did away with dairy farms and dairy cows altogether. A recent modeling study actually explored the latter perspective, assessing the impact of replacing dairy cows with plant-based sources of nutrients from a purely nutritional and environmental standpoint, and its findings offer insight into the reality of what that would look like. It turns out, eradicating dairy cows in the U.S. would be detrimental in a multitude of ways.
Researchers determined the potential nutritional and environmental impacts of systematically removing dairy cows from the U.S. ecosystem by evaluating several modeling scenarios for phasing them out in favor of alternate plant-based sources of nutrients. The outcomes were less than ideal. In one scenario, dairy cows were replaced with fruit and vegetable production, which led to a slight increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a significant decrease in the availability of essential nutrients. Another scenario replaced milk production with nuts and pulses, which had a minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but substantially decreased the availability of essential nutrients.
Long story short, the study shows that doing away with dairy cows wouldn’t benefit the environment — and in some instances would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions — and reinforces the nutrients supplied by dairy are not easily replaced by other food groups. Dairy packs a serious nutrient punch, effectively, efficiently and affordably providing the annual protein requirements of 169 million people and the annual calcium requirements of over three-quarters of the population.
Behind every dairy cow, there’s a dynamic community
Again, perspective is key. This research looked at the environmental and nutritional value of dairy in the U.S., but what if the perspective was expanded even further to assess dairy’s total global impact from a nutrition, environmental and economic standpoint, giving us a glimpse of, not just the U.S. without dairy cows, but the entire world without dairy cows? I can assure you the forecast would be bleak. Millions of people around the world would lose their livelihoods, it would be harder for children in developing countries to get the crucial nutrients they need, and we’d see entire communities collapse.
Dairy is a vital and resilient ecosystem that encompasses many facets, entities and perspectives, all of which matter and must be considered. Some dairy cows may be black and white, but the dairy industry isn’t. Dairy’s impact is vast and deep. It nourishes people, supports vibrant communities and is good for the planet. Taking dairy out of the equation removes the benefits that come with it. Instead of taking things away, let’s continue improving what we have and embrace the many ways dairy contributes positively to our lives.
Jay Waldvogel is senior vice president of Strategy and International Development at Dairy Farmers of America.