In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and Global Dairy Platform published a comprehensive report on climate change and the global dairy cattle sector.
Climate change – one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century
Our farmers, connected deeply to earth’s cycles, are intensely aware of the shifting weather patterns that increase working risk. The prevailing drought in the Eastern Cape is a prime example of how evolving weather patterns are having a devastating effect on communities’ welfare.
The dairy sector’s challenge is to determine how to reduce environmental impacts while continuing to meet society’s needs. Dairy products are a rich source of essential nutrients that contribute to a healthy and nutritious diet. With demand for high-quality animal sourced protein increasing globally, dairy policy makers are well placed to contribute to global food security and poverty reduction through the supply of dairy products. However, in so doing, it is essential that the sector’s growth is sustainable in terms of the environment.
Global dairy sector’s emissions
This UN’s study illustrates how the dairy sector’s GHG emissions increased by 18 percent between 2005 and 2015, due to the global dairy herd increasing 11 percent and general milk production growing by 30 percent. It is encouraging to see that while emissions have increased, dairy farming has become more efficient resulting in declining emission intensities per unit of product.
The good news is that emission intensities and GHG per kilogram of milk have declined by almost 11 percent over the 2005-2015 period. These declines are mainly due to continued improvements to on-farm efficiency which is achieved through improved animal productivity and better management. These numbers prove that dairy farmers are already part of the solution to limit climate change.
There is, however, still is an urgent need to accelerate and increase the sector’s response to avoid climate tipping points. The study outlines three focal areas where substantial net reductions in GHG emissions can be attained:
1) Production efficiency by employing advanced technology and farming best practices. This will promote the reduction of milk’s emission intensity.
2) Production best practices that protect carbon sinks, namely grasslands and forests. Farmers should identify and minimise factors that cause the degradation of natural ecosystems, agricultural expansion and deforestation.
3) Reducing demand for resources by better integrating livestock into the circular bio-economy. This is achieved by recycling and recovering nutrients and energy from animal waste, or closer integration of livestock with crops and other agri-industries at various scales to make use of low value and low-emission biomass.