Dairy industry disputes GRAIN report on global GHG emissions

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Multiple companies have acknowledged that dairy farming does contribute a significantly to GHG emmissions, but that they are actively working to minimize their environmental footprint.  ©GettyImages/Grigorenko
Multiple companies have acknowledged that dairy farming does contribute a significantly to GHG emmissions, but that they are actively working to minimize their environmental footprint. ©GettyImages/Grigorenko

Related tags Dairy companies Greenhouse gas Fonterra

International nonprofit GRAIN has revealed that the world’s top 10 dairy companies emitted roughly 231Mt (million tons) of CO2 in 2016, the equivalent of half of France’s total GHG footprint and a quarter of the emissions emitted by Germany.

The emission findings were part of a report by GRAIN​ and the Institute of Trade Policy (IATP), which listed the top 20 meat and dairy companies, who together contributed more GHGs than all of Germany as well as the world’s largest oil companies including Exxon, BP, and Shell.


The global dairy sector contributes 4% to global GHG emissions with an estimated 2.7% coming from global milk production, processing, and transportation, according to a report conducted by the FAO in 2007. However, newer research has shown that GHG emissions such as atmospheric methane have risen rapidly since 2007, according to a 2016 study​ published in the International Journal of Science. 

“We have estimated corporate emissions from livestock, using the most comprehensive methodology created to date by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),”​ the organizations said.

“If these companies were a country, they would be the world’s 7th​ largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

DairyReporter reached out to the top 10 dairy companies cited as the top GHG emitters (listed in order of amount of GHGs emitted): Dairy Farmers of America, Fonterra, Lactalis, Arla, Nestlé, FrieslandCampina, Dean Foods, DMK, California Dairies, and Saputo.

However, only five companies responded after repeated requests for comment with Dean Foods saying that they “do not have anything to add.”

GRAIN believes that the solution to reducing GHGs is an industry-wide transition from “factory farming and agribusiness”​ to small-scale producers and local food systems that provide moderate production level of meat and “do so in a way that regenerates soils, provides livelihoods to rural and urban communities and makes crops and animals resilient to the vagaries of an unpredictable climate.”

‘We believe dairy is healthy and sustainable’

FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, and Arla have all refuted the GHG emission amounts calculated by GRAIN, claiming that the conversion factor used in the report is inaccurate.

According to FrieslandCampina, the emissions factor should be 1.24 instead of 1.58, translating into a 40% lower carbon footprint (12.47Mt vs. 20Mt). Similarly, Fonterra said GRAIN’s average emissions factor estimate is more than double the amount used by the New Zealand dairy industry.

2013/2014 full life-cycle estimate of GHGs for New Zealand milk was 4% lower than 2012/2013, Fonterra says

“The perceived and proposed narratives in the Grain-report are not our reality. In other words we do not recognize ourselves in the FrieslandCampina figures presented in this report,”​ FrieslandCampina director of corporate communications, Jan-Willem ter Avest told DairyReporter.

“We believe that dairy is healthy and sustainable,”​ ter Avest continued.

“Very little environmental benefit is achieved by substituting dairy in the average Dutch diet. This is because dairy, as a source of necessary nutrients, is as environmentally efficient as the product combinations that are needed to replace it.”

FrieslandCampina added that it is aware of how dairy production affects the environment and has a multidisciplinary sustainability strategy, route2020, which aims to achieve climate-neutral growth by reducing the use of scarce materials (e.g. water, raw materials, and fossil fuels).

Global dairy producer Arla Foods told DairyReporter it also tracks and publishes its emissions and that it falls below the global average calculated by the FAO of GHGs of 2.6kg CO2e per kg milk.

“The comparable number for Arla Foods is only 1.4 kg CO2e,”​ Arla Foods said in a statement.

“The report claims that few dairy companies calculate or publish their climate emissions, which is clearly not the case for Arla Foods that has transparently published our emissions for many years.”

GRAIN counter response

GRAIN and IATP said it based its calculations off of the most up to date metrics (released in 2010) provided by the FAO under its Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM).

“From what we understand, the FAO’s model was developed in close partnership with the dairy industry, particularly the International Dairy Federation,”​ Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN and Juliette Majot of IATP said in a joint statement to DairyReporter.

“The emissions factors used by Fonterra, FrieslandCampina and Arla are indeed less than the emissions factors provided by the FAO's GLEAM for their regions of production,” ​they continued.

Kuyek and Majot added that recent data released by GRAIN and IATP will be part of a larger report published in 2018, which will go provide more detail on how the meat and dairy industries are confronting the climate crisis as it relates to GHGs emissions.

“Without detailed information from these companies explaining how they arrived at their estimated emissions factors, it is not possible for us to assess why the emissions factors they use are so much lower than those determined by the FAO.”

How dairy is taking action

A number of dairy companies acknowledged that GHGs are a reality of the industry but that they are working to reduce their environmental impact with long-term sustainability strategies.

“Dairy farming does account for a significant proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions,”​ Francesca Eggleton, group environment manger, Fonterra, told DairyReporter.

“That’s why Fonterra is taking action where we can, including changing on-farm practices, investing in mitigation technologies, and working with the government to achieve New Zealand’s Paris Agreement commitments.”

Dairy Farmers of America, told DairyReporter that as a dairy cooperative with over 13,000 members, one of its core focuses is producing dairy products through sustainable practices.

“As an industry we are looking at ways to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for fluid milk,”​ David Darr, president of farm services and vice president of sustainability at DFA, said.

Some solutions revolve around reducing on-farm carbon emissions through research on methane vaccines and inhibitors as well as low-emission feed that produces low emissions in dairy cows.

“We also have a target of net zero emissions for our global operations by 2050, with a 30% reduction by 2030 from a 2015 baseline,”​ Fonterra said.

“At a local level we are providing farmers with support to understand their emissions and how to identify efficiency opportunities, as we work towards a target of climate neutral growth to 2030 for on farm emissions from a 2015 baseline.”

On the FrieslandCampina side, the company offers its dairy farmers a €10 bonus for each ton of reduced CO2 emissions achieved as part of its route2020 goals.

“One of the projects to achieve this is manure monofermentation at farm level.  Manure monofermentation contributes to the reduction of the emission of greenhouse gases in two ways, being by reducing the methane volume on the one hand and by generating green energy on the other,”​ ter Avest said.

FrieslandCampina also mentioned that progress must come from a collaborative approach as well such as the “Sustainable Dairy Chain” ​initiative that involves multiple Dutch dairy companies and farmers who are working to develop an environmentally-responsible and sustainable dairy sector.

“The Sustainable Dairy Chain makes substantial efforts to improve on all sustainability issues it has prioritized and set targets on. On a number of issues, this is resulting in strong progress,” ​ter Avest said.

“We need to work together with other companies.” 

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1 comment

Dairy can't greenwash methane

Posted by Samuel,

Dairy cows and beef cattle emit enormous amounts of methane by belching it out their mouths. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25X more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping greenhouse gases. I would be interested to know how this report treats methane, ie, does its analysis take methane's 25X into account or does it greenwash for the dairy industry?

If the dairy industry was truly concerned about climate change, it would commit now to no further increases in production anywhere in the world. As it is, countries like New Zealand are actively expanding their dairy production to export these milk products around the world. It is unbelievable that a country would actively do that. In fact, I think the total increase of NZ's GHGs since 2000 all came from increased dairy production.

Any dairy farmers or companies trying to increase milk, cheese and whey production are either ignorant or simply don't care about climate change. At some point, consumers will realize what dairy does to the environment and its central role in climate change and they will look to punish companies and products that didn't try to cut back on their use of dairy and dairy ingredients.

It may be that the only solution will be to carbon price methane at 25X whatever the CO2 carbon price will be. That can get the job done. Instead, maybe companies like these Terrible Ten --

Dairy Farmers of America, Fonterra, Lactalis, Arla, Nestlé, FrieslandCampina, Dean Foods, DMK, California Dairies, and Saputo.

-- can start voluntarily cutting back on the use and production of dairy and their use in food and beverage products by substituting other sustainable ingredients wherever possible. If they don't do that starting now, later consumers will punish them severely.

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