Dairy Sector and Climate Crisis

 

Harvesting animals for dairy and animal-based products in India is a major source of livelihood for 150 million dairy farmers. The products are a source of nutrition and food security for a significant chunk of the population as well. The dairy sector accounts for 4.2 per cent of the national gross domestic product. Concerns of high GHG emissions from dairy sector is a cause for worry.

Contributions of Dairy sector to climate crisis in India

  • Agriculture contributes approximately 16 per cent of India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which is released by cattle during dairy farming.
  • Methane from ruminant belching and animal waste contribute about 75 per cent of the total GHG emissions of the dairy sector.
  • The alarming loss of biodiversity is attributed to water- and energy-intensive crops needed to feed the cattle.
  • India is increasingly becoming water-stressed due to exploding human and cattle population growth.
  • A typical crossbred cow consumes about 1,100 litres / day.
  • With this increasing demand for dairy, there is growing pressure on natural resources, including freshwater and soil.
  • The three major GHGs emitted from agri-food systems, namely methane (CH₄), nitrous oxide (N₂O) and carbon dioxide (CO₂).
  • Multinational companies such as Nestle and Danone have been accused of promoting water-intensive dairy industry in Punjab and the neighbouring states, which is fast depleting groundwater.
  • Unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as wetlands, and forests.
  • Animal exploitation through animal farming, destruction of natural habitats, livestock-associated deforestation, hunting and trading of wildlife are the leading cause of zoonotic diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and humans.

Way forward

  • Recently, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has developed an anti-methanogenic feed supplement ‘Harit Dhara’ (HD), which can cut down cattle methane emissions by 17-20% and can also result in higher milk production.
  • In order to reduce emission intensity of milk, the sector needs to urgently act to realize the existing potentials for GHG emission reduction through technological and farm best practices interventions and solutions.
  • Fostering changes in production practices that protect carbon sinks (grasslands and forest) by targeting drivers linked to degradation of natural ecosystems, agricultural expansion and deforestation.
  • Dairy producers cannot ignore the climate consequences of the sector. They need to proactively ramp up production of plant-based human food alternatives to dairy products.

The dairy industry has been a subject of intense debate in recent years, fuelled by climate change crisis concerns worldwide as well as the advancement of various plant-based alternatives claiming to be more sustainable replacements. With livelihoods of 150 million at stake, policymakers will need to identify alternative employment opportunities for the displaced masses. Large-scale social forestry could be an answer to address this fall-out, with positive consequences to the planet.