Home » Environment » Canada’s Dairy Sector Expanding Role in Fight Against Climate Change

With climate change now a top-of-mind issue for Canadians, there are sometimes concerns about dairy cows as a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The facts, however, tell a different story. Canada’s modern and ever-evolving dairy sector accounts for but a tiny fraction of our country’s GHG emissions, and has one of the world’s lowest carbon footprints.

Furthermore, thanks to the ongoing efforts of dairy farmers, the sector’s overall environmental footprint continues to shrink. 

But first, how do cows fit into the GHG emissions mix? As ruminants, cows have complex digestive systems that allow them to eat plants that are inedible to humans — rumination, though, means that cows burp up methane. On the flip side, it converts plants into nutritious milk, some of which becomes cheese, yogurt, and other healthy foods. All human activity, including eating, draws on environmental resources. The question is therefore, are we getting better at feeding ourselves while respecting our planet? 

According to the Canadian government’s greenhouse gas inventory, Canadian milk production generates only about 1% of Canada’s total GHG emissions, even when taking into account the impact of related farm activities such as crop production, manure management, and making and maintaining farming equipment.

Furthermore, a recent life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the industry’s environmental performance conducted on behalf of Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) underscored a number of positive trends.

In the last five years, the carbon footprint of a glass of Canadian milk fell by 7%.

Over the same period, the amount of land required to produce a litre of milk fell by 11% and water consumption decreased by 6%.

Although it’s one of the largest sectors in agriculture economically, dairy production uses less than 3% of agricultural land and consumes just 0.02% of the freshwater supply in the southern part of Canada.

As stewards of the land, dairy farmers have long understood the importance of sustainable best practices and mitigating the environmental impact of their farms.

The recent LCA revealed that farmers continue to adopt new and better practices such as emptying manure storage more frequently, which reduces GHG emissions, and making better use of crop rotation, which leads to higher yields of feed crops with less water and tillage required.

As stewards of the land, dairy farmers have long understood the importance of sustainable best practices and mitigating the environmental impact of their farms.

Thanks to science-based improvements in herd management, cows are well fed, healthier, and their milk production has risen by 13% between 2011 and 2016. Cows today produce nearly three times as much milk as they did in 1973 thanks to science-based advances, so the level of GHG emissions generated per litre of milk has decreased considerably, and the trend is ongoing.

Moreover, Canadian dairy farms, through DFC, recently received international recognition from Unilever for their commitment toward sustainable milk production practices. Unilever is one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies, and produces and sells around 400 brands in more than 190 countries to billions of consumers. In 2010, Unilever launched the Sustainable Agriculture Code, which has become a major tool in sustainable sourcing programs. The code, revised in 2017, is a collection of best practices that aim to codify important aspects of sustainability in farming and to apply them to the supply chain.

DFC has achieved equivalency to Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code after comparing its code’s standard to the way milk is produced in Canada by considering provincial environmental regulations, labour laws, and the national supply management system, as well as the commitments made and being carried out through proAction®, DFC’s robust quality assurance program. 

In continuing to seek greater efficiencies, dairy farmers also understand the wisdom of investing in better equipment and barns, as well as in research to better understand their animals’ needs.   

Improved Environmental Impact
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