What are the limits to dairy’s growth?

In 2013, global milk production was 638 million tonnes and by 2050 global consumption is estimated to increase by 58 percent. In 2011, dairy provided around 26% of animal product-based proteins and a third of all animal product-based calories supplied daily, more than eggs, poultry, beef or pigs. The fastest growing markets for dairy are in Asia, where over fifteen years milk consumption doubled per capita for the entire continent. China and India won’t be able to supply themselves. So where on Earth is the growth in dairy production going to happen?

A demanding food production

Even though global dairy has increased its overall efficiency over the past few decades, the sector will need to become even more productive and efficient if it wants to increase its production while staying within the limits of natural resources available on Earth. Food production, all in all, accounts for about 40 percent of the habitable land, 70 percent of the water we consume, and 30 percent of GHG emissions globally. It’s the biggest contributor to climate change, soil erosion, and the loss of habitat and biodiversity on the planet.

The reputation of the industry

The dairy industry needs to use a variety of strategies to bring its environmental footprint into line with the Earth’s finite capacity. There are opportunities for improvement related to cattle breeds, feed and forage quality, pasture management, feed management (including alternatives), manure management, animal care and housing systems, as well as processing and distribution. The dairy industry needs to bring its poorest performers on a journey of continuous improvement . This journey entails helping them to professionalize and become more productive and more efficient because the reputation of the entire sector will be judged on the poorest performers rather than the best ones. The industry needs to focus on a few realistic growth models with the limitations of resource availability in mind.

Aerial view of cows in the pasture - germanyIncreasing pressure

Increasing global dairy production will depend on protein rich feed. The expanding livestock sectors in Europe and China are putting increasing pressure on forests, grasslands and other high value ecosystems being converted to crop production outside their own countries.

Land conversion is happening at a rapid pace. In South America, forests and grasslands are cleared for soy, and increasingly, corn production. In the US and Canada, The Northern Great Plains grasslands are being plowed for soy and corn production. Which biodiversity rich areas that will fall victim to the plough next? The Serengeti? Mekong?

Responsible sourcing of soy and palm

At least 70 consumer goods companies have committed to take deforestation out of their supply chains. Many have dairy in their product portfolios. These companies understand that their supply chains impact biodiversity rich habitats. However, it is not clear that the companies are making the link to soy and land conversion as it relates to dairy. While a few leading dairy producing companies have committed to responsible sourcing of soy and palm, which we applaud, we urge everyone to do more on this critical issue.

Is dairy bold enough to make sustainable sourcing and production commitments, such as habitat-conversion free supply chains, as part of your sustainable growth plans?


Jason ClayPhoto Jason Clay
Senior vice president for food markets at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

He has worked on a family farm and in the US Department of Agriculture. He has co-convened multi-stakeholder roundtables of producers, investors, buyers, researchers and NGOs to identify and reduce the impacts of salmon, soy, sugarcane, cotton, and beef. Most recently he has helped create corporate commitments around deforestation and more recently brought attention to global issues such as illegality, degraded land, and long-term contracts as a way to use the market to change it.