Image: Kabsik Park/Flickr

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A new study from the World Wildlife Fund found that in the next five years, US dairy farms have the potential to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Milk has long been heralded as a superfood in the United States through superb PR campaigns, but in actuality has a very high carbon footprint

WWF speculates that if just 10% of dairy production in the US were to achieve net-zero, total greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by more than a hundred million tons.

Why This Matters: Agriculture significantly contributes to climate change, yet is a sector ripe for decarbonization through innovative abatement tactics. The Biden administration has prioritized making agriculture more sustainable as part of its overall climate change goals, as this will not only provide benefits for the planet but also generate revenue for farmers. 

The report explains that while increased sustainability practices in dairy farming are technically feasible, they need the support of the government and private sector to make them financially viable for farmers. 

Jason Clay, executive director of WWF’s Markets Institute, said: “We need to make it easy for Americans to prioritize the planet when putting food on the table—to make all choices more sustainable so the burden isn’t on the consumer. But we also need to make it feasible for farmers. Through this analysis we’re showing how, with the right incentives and policies, dairy can get there, and get there quickly. And if it’s possible for dairy, other food sectors—and particularly other animal proteins—won’t be far behind.”

Reaching net-zero emissions will give farms financial benefits, with a possible annual return of $1.9 million or more per farm. Cows generate the bulk of emissions among livestock, which itself is responsible for almost 15% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, thus making emissions reductions in dairy farming especially consequential.

Making Zero Emissions A Reality: WWF identified several  areas in which emissions can be reduced: 

  • feed production and efficiency, 
  • reducing methane emissions, 
  • managing manure, 
  • and generating renewable energy. 

In order to bolster sustainability in these areas, WWF recommends implementing climate-smart agricultural practices for feed optimization, converting manure into fertilizers and energy, and processing food waste in biodigesters. 

The report emphasizes that these practices are feasible, but not economically viable at the moment. Farmers —especially those that run smaller-scale farms — would need financial incentives and supportive policies, and without these, it could take decades to reach net-zero emissions. Corporate investment could also help accelerate progress.

Stakeholders in the US dairy industry — like farmers, cooperatives, processing companies, and industry organizations — are currently beginning a pilot program to implement the principles outlined in the proposal. This pilot program is scheduled to launch this year.

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