Towards A Just Food Future: Reimagining Dairy Systems
We’ve all seen the pictures of cows grazing contentedly on grass, calves frolicking nearby. Life seems good. But these images belie the true state of the dairy industry. Over the last 50 years, dairy operations have grown ever larger. The small dairy farmer is disappearing, and thousands of farms go out of business every year. In 1997, half of all U.S. dairy cows were in herds larger than 140. Fifteen years later, half of all dairy cows were in herds of more than 900. Larger herd sizes can lead to economies of scale and higher productivity. Yet bigger dairy operations, while potentially more profitable, can also lead to significant social and environmental costs as well as immense animal suffering.
The authors reviewed the literature on dairy intensification from the European Union (E.U.), North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Dairy intensification involves creating systems that produce more milk per unit of inputs such as food, labor, or land. Technologies, including breeding with artificial insemination, along with antibiotics, commercially prepared feed, and mechanized feeding and milking, all allow more cows to be managed by fewer people and in smaller spaces. These practices lead to the authors’ four concerns about this increasing intensification.
- Environment – effects of dairying include emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG’s), soil and water pollution, biodiversity loss, nutrient cycles from animal waste, and land use change. Dairy production creates three GHG’s, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. However, results are mixed as to the overall effect of intensification on GHG’s. Intensive dairy operations do have clear, negative impacts on water quality. Synthetic fertilizers and manure concentrate nitrogen, degrading land and water and damaging ecosystems. Changes in land use to create the farms and to grow monoculture feed crops also affect biodiversity.
- Animal welfare – welfare considerations fall into three categories. The first is basic health and function, implying the absence of disease. The second considers the animal’s affective, or emotional states such as pain, distress, and pleasure. Finally, there is the animal’s freedom to behave naturally. For the cows in intensive dairy operations, the increase in profits and productivity has come at the cost of their wellbeing. They are mostly confined indoors and more likely to be sick or lame. After just a few pregnancy cycles, they are sent to slaughter.
- Livelihoods and wellbeing – at a macro-level, dairy intensification increases gross domestic product (GDP) and thus a region’s or country’s wealth. However, at a local level, small farms go bankrupt. Livelihoods (both on farm and off), traditional skills, and ways of life fall victim to corporate dictates. Also, using just GDP as a metric loses sight of the damage to human health or the environment. This distorts market prices, leading to overproduction and overconsumption.
- Human health – dairy intensification poses human health risks in a variety of ways. Confined animal feeding systems (CAFO’s) pollute soil, air, and groundwater. Zoonotic threats increase, as do the risks of antimicrobial resistance. And while cheap dairy contributes to protein and other micronutrient intake, it may also be associated with cardiovascular disease.
Three overlapping frameworks have the potential to offer solutions to concerns about dairy intensification.
- Sustainable intensification (SI) — this approach aims to increase productivity while simultaneously reducing the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming practices. SI can look different depending on the location. In the global north, it focuses on technology solutions, while in Africa it relies on local knowledge. However, SI doesn’t really address problems with animal welfare, human health, and social issues.
- Agricultural multifunctionality, including alternative food networks — this framework describes systems which create benefits beyond the agricultural output such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity enhancement, or water quality improvement. This can extend to social benefits such as family farms and cultural landscapes. However, paying farmers for environmental improvements risks creating a new form of subsidy, taking money away from governments’ overall regulatory budgets.
- Agroecology – this concept emphasizes how agriculture fits into the overall environment. It fosters the use of ecological principles to achieve sustainability and social equity. Agroecology differs from the first two approaches in its emphasis on the need to transform food systems and its agenda for societal change.
This paper argues for changes to the dairy industry that result in more ethical, fair, and sustainable food systems. We need more research and new policy approaches — whatever fixes we apply to the dairy system should fit the larger context of social and environmental change, and as systems evolve, we must be alert for problematic framings and measures. For example, productivity is the typical benchmark against which we measure progress. But it’s just this mindset that’s brought us here. Animal advocates can use this review as they think about how dairy systems can improve, not only for the animals but for the environment and societies in which they are embedded.