Apart from being one of the cruelest and most unnecessary industries today, the environmental impact of dairy is also very scary. New research from the University of Buffalo, funded by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, reminds us what an environmental nightmare dairy can be.
The University of Buffalo researchers, led by researcher Diana Aga, conducted their research on commercial dairy farm with approximately 2,000 cows in in New York State, says a EurekAlert press release. Their working hypothesis was that the farm’s quality manure processing system — a combination of pasteurization (where heat kills pathogens) and anaerobic digestion system — would eliminate harmful estrogens and antibiotics from the manure. Boy, were they wrong!
What’s Anaerobic Digestion?
The American Biogas Council says that anaerobic digestion is:
[A] series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. One of the end products is biogas, which is combusted to generate electricity and heat, or can be processed into renewable natural gas and transportation fuels.
I was curious how a pro-dairy site would describe the benefits of the processing system. Here are a few benefits of a smaller-scale anaerobic digestion technology described in Dairy Doing More:
– Earning more income through electricity, mulch and fertilizer sales
– Reducing greenhouse gases and other pesky problems
– Decreasing cattle bedding and decreasing energy costs
– Increasing organic fertilizer value
– Removing the weed seeds in manure
Anaerobic Digestion Doesn’t Totally Remove Chemicals
However, according to the new research, anaerobic digestion is far from being perfect. The researchers discovered that estrogen and antibiotics were still present in dairy waste after being processed; these waste materials are often reused as fertilizer and animal bedding on the farm. The treated estrogen was particularly problematic since it posed an even greater ecological threat than in its original form.
Hormones and antibiotics finding their way into the environment threatens wildlife and human health. According to EurekAlert, estrogen that enters rivers and lakes can harm fish reproduction by “causing male fish to develop female traits.” And the overuse of antibiotics on livestock is nudging us closer to superbugs, antibiotic resistance and a public health disaster.
Ultimately, the researchers insist that more research is needed, and that, “We need to start looking closely at additional treatment techniques to identify better practices” because anaerobic digestion fails to “totally remove these chemicals.”
More Dairy Dangers
But the problems with dairy don’t end with chemicals. According to The New York Times, “tainted water, terrible odors, flies and fumes that add to the region’s [San Joaquin Valley, California] severe air pollution” are other factors. There’s also the risk of nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli and ammonia entering the environment.
Of course, there’s also the issue of methane from cow farts and belches. Research from 2005 shows that dairy was responsible for “2.8 percent of all man-made climate-warming gases.” According to The Guardian, while the dairy industry is trying to move in a more sustainable direction (e.g. voluntary sustainability metrics for dairy farm operations and producers), the expectations might not be realistic. For instance, one sustainability goal is to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030. However, like California dairy farmer Brian Medeiros admits to The Guardian, “The only way to reduce [enteric] methane from a cow is to get rid of the cow.”
Is Dairy-Free Really Better for the Environment?
Fortunately, dairy-free alternatives don’t need cows at all, so there’s no need to worry about estrogen, antibiotics and climate-warming methane. Those reasons alone make dairy-free alternatives better for the environment, but here a couple of charts that clearly illustrate why dairy-free is the way to be:
And, hello, even Ben & Jerry’s is exploring dairy-free alternatives. Who knows, maybe Nestlé will also surprise us with dairy-free chocolates? If you’re open to ditching dairy, the easiest place to start is milk. Here’s a great guide on five plant-based milk alternatives to get you started.
Photo Credit: Iain Farrell