Here’s a wild thought experiment. What would happen if farmers and dairy cows went on vacation? That would mean no milk, but also no dairy products like butter, cheese, and yogurt, the basis of so many popular foods. Of course, we’d miss the occasional slice of cheese pizza, but what would happen to the nutrition dairy provides? Or to the environment? The answer may surprise you.
When it comes to nutrition, milk supplies a formidable 13 essential nutrients that benefit health and wellness. It’s also an affordable choice of nutrition, especially for protein and bone health. Calcium, a key element of bone health, costs 12 cents per milligram in milk and dairy, compared to $2.45 per milligram in protein foods and $3.33 per milligram in fruit. In fact, Americans 2 years of age and older get over half of their calcium and vitamin D from milk, cheese, and yogurt, plus over a quarter of all the vitamin B12 consumed in the U.S.
Without dairy, could we get the same level of nutrients from other food sources? Robin White, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at Virginia Tech, studied this scenario. “When land used for feed for dairy cattle was replaced with fruits and vegetables or nuts and beans, we saw a 57% reduction in the availability of vitamin B12 and a 54% reduction in the availability of vitamin D,” White said. “Then for calcium, we saw about a 12% and a 28% reduction, respectively.” These reductions mean there is less availability of those key nutrients for people if dairy land is used to grow other crops. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, these losses in calcium and other nutrients would present undesirable deficiencies.
What, then, would be the impact on the environment and climate change? Dairy cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But dairy cows and their manure comprise only about 1.3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Compare that to 28% from transportation and 27% from electricity. According to White’s study, removing dairy cows from production would result in a minor 0.7% change in total greenhouse gas emissions. Compound that with the loss of essential nutrients, this minor environmental gain comes at the major expense of human nutrition.
“There isn’t one magical solution to improving greenhouse gas emissions,” White said. “But what that means is that all of our industries have the opportunity to be part of the solution.” For the dairy industry, that involves working to be more sustainable by reducing food waste, improving water quality, and advancing farm practices and technologies. On a larger scale, the dairy industry has committed to becoming carbon neutral or better by 2050.
So, seeing that dairy is good for you and is working harder for the planet, it’s a good thing the cows are home.