Greenhouse-gas emissions from dairy cows have shown a decline globally during a 10-year period, a new study has found.

Launched by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the Global Dairy Platform, the report is entitled “Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector.” During a 10-year period from 2005 to 2015 the study calculated greenhouse-gas emissions from the dairy sector and found reductions in all regions of the world.

The analysis identified that, on average, greenhouse gases emitted in the production of milk have decreased in “emissions intensity,” which is emissions per unit of product. The decrease found is 11 percent – from 2.8 kilograms to 2.5 kilograms carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of product produced.

The study reports that the largest reductions in emission intensity occurred in lesser- and middle-income countries with traditionally depressed productivity. While developed dairy regions also reduced the intensity of emissions, the Food and Agriculture Organisation stated the percentage improvement was not as substantial because those systems were already operating at much lesser rates.

During the same period, global dairy production has grown by 30 percent to meet consumer demand for excellent-quality nutritious food products – by increasing both cow numbers and average milk yields.

As a result of increased global output, absolute emissions increased by 18 percent globally. The Food and Agriculture Organisation states that without the efficiency improvements made by the sector, total emissions from dairy would have increased by almost 38 percent – more than double the current levels being achieved.

The report also details where opportunities in current knowledge and potential breakthrough technologies exist for the sector to pursue, noting the limitations associated with operating in biological systems.

The sharing of technical knowledge with all dairy economies is fundamental to maintaining the sector’s continuous improvement ambitions at a global level. More than 363 million dairy cows on 133 million dairy farms around the world support the livelihoods of 1 billion people. The importance of dairying to socio-economic and nutritional outcomes must be balanced against the need for improved environmental outcomes.

Lead author of the report, Carolyn Opio with the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Animal Production and Health Division, said, “The analysis quantifies the progress of the sector in improving the efficiency of production. The report also recognizes there is more for the sector to do to play their part in mitigating climate change.

“We encourage the dairy sector to build on the progress to date to identify and implement appropriate and sustainable solutions that provide nutritious food for the growing world population.”

Donald Moore, executive director of the Global Dairy Platform and chairman of the Dairy Sustainability Framework that commissioned the study, said, “More than 6 billion people around the world regularly consume milk and dairy foods as an affordable, accessible nutrient-rich food, supplying energy and significant amounts of high-quality protein and micronutrients.

“Analysis from independent authorities such as the UN (Food and Agriculture Organisation) provides important guidance for the sector in its efforts to responsibly produce high-quality nutrition in ways that respect the environment, the farmers that produce it and the animals it comes from.

“The dairy sector recognizes the responsibility it has to continuously improve its performance. We are on the right track, but there is still more to do and the importance of timely quality data to help track and manage performance cannot be under-estimated.

“The work of initiatives such as the Dairy Sustainability Framework, established in 2013 as the vehicle for improving and quantifying the sector’s sustainability performance, demonstrates that dairy is committed to continuously seeking ways to reduce (greenhouse-gas) emissions from farms and businesses by all economically viable means, regardless of where they are operating or their stage of sustainability development.”

With 16 years experience behind him, award-winning agricultural journalist Chris McCullough is always on the hunt for his next story. He grew up on the family dairy farm in the heart of Northern Ireland.