The dairy industry, like many other global sectors, is dedicated to reducing its environmental impact in order to achieve a shared net zero future by 2050. Current research is focused on finding greenhouse gas mitigation strategies that are both beneficial for animal health and production, but there are discussions suggesting that a significant transformation in our agriculture production systems is necessary to meet climate goals. This transformation would involve reducing animal-based foods and increasing plant-based foods.
A team of researchers from Virginia Tech’s School of Animal Sciences is conducting a study to understand the trade-offs associated with this transformation. Their study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, aims to quantify the holistic impact of the dairy industry by examining the contribution of dairy milk to human nutrition and its associations with agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
The lead investigator of the study, Dr. Robin R. White, explains, “To fully understand the role of dairy in feeding the world, we need global-scale assessments of the trade-offs involved in dairy production.”
In their research, White and co-author Dr. Claire B. Gleason noticed that previous studies on the environmental footprint of dairy systems often failed to report on dairy’s contribution of critical vitamins and minerals to human health, focusing solely on milk weight or energy/protein content. They aimed to use network analysis methods to gain a better understanding of the trade-offs between nutrition and environmental impact in existing global food systems.
To conduct the study, the researchers utilized data collected by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, allowing them to evaluate data at various levels, from individual countries to continents. They analyzed global supplies of different foods and their respective environmental impacts. All the data sets used in the analysis are available in the open-access Virginia Tech Data Repository.
The data revealed the global-scale contributions of fluid milk to human nutrition, particularly calcium, as well as the environmental impacts of food production, including emissions and water use. The analysis considered food in its preprocessed forms, and it included fluid milk from all dairy species. Total food supply was calculated, accounting for loss, waste, trade, and animal feed, and nutrient requirements based on age and gender were taken into account.
The researchers also examined how milk and meat products are linked to agricultural environmental impacts by correlating supplies with greenhouse emissions and water withdrawal for crop and livestock irrigation, using data from individual countries.
Overall, the data demonstrated the critical role of milk in the global agroecosystem and its contribution to the nutritional adequacy of foods produced within that system. While there are environmental trade-offs associated with milk production, milk remains an essential source of important vitamins and minerals such as protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and phosphorus, while requiring relatively low energy.
Dr. White adds, “Milk is one of the few low-energy sources of calcium available for human consumption, and our results suggest that 35% of the global calcium available for human consumption is obtained from milk.” Calcium inadequacy is a widespread issue for all countries, regardless of income level.
The researchers, however, acknowledge the limitations of their analysis and emphasize the need for further research. They explain that this type of food systems research, which considers the existing structure of the food system and potential interventions, should be complemented by outside-the-box solutions to improve sustainability and reduce emissions.
Considering these limitations, enhancing global milk availability and coordinating its distribution among supply chains may be important priorities for improving the availability of critical nutrients within food systems worldwide.
R.R. White et al, Global contributions of milk to nutrient supplies and greenhouse gas emissions, Journal of Dairy Science (2023). DOI: 10.3168/jds.2022-22508
Despite environmental trade-offs, dairy milk is a critical, low-impact link in global nutrition, finds recent analysis (2023, June 26)
retrieved 26 June 2023
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Shambhu Kumar is a science communicator, making complex scientific topics accessible to all. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.