MADISON, Wis. – With a contribution of just 2%, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the United States dairy industry is much less than mainstream media would like people to believe.   
    “The dairy industry is not the major contributor to climate change that many people say it is,” said Frank Mitloehner, PhD, professor and air quality specialist in the department of animal science at the University of California-Davis. “Farmers do contribute; however, industries that emit carbon from fossil fuels are the biggest contributors.”
    Widely recognized as an expert in air quality as well as animal housing and livestock husbandry, Mitloehner spoke to a full room of dairy farmers and other industry stakeholders Oct. 3 about climate change during his World Dairy Expo seminar, “Climate Change – Reducing the Dairy Industry’s Carbon Footprint,” in Madison, Wis.
    “We hear in the news all the time that livestock is a major driver to climate change,” Mitloehner said. “But it is not nearly as significant as what is being reported.”
    Cows are not the problem. Rather, sectors that consume massive amounts of fossil fuels are the ones doing the most damage. Transportation, electricity and industry produce approximately 80% of emissions in the United States. According to Mitloehner, cement is one of the worst offenders. All agriculture produces just 9% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and of that 9%, animal agriculture is responsible for only 3.9%, with dairy contributing 2%.
    The main culprit of climate change is the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, methane, etc. These gases form a blanket around the troposphere, trapping in heat from the sun. The warming of the earth has made a reality of things previously not possible, such as the ability to circle around the North Pole in a ship, an area previously frozen.
    Even though it is a short-lived climate pollutant with a lifespan of one decade, when it comes to global warming potential, methane is seen as a much more potent gas than CO2, which has a lifespan of 1,000 years. Furthermore, methane is not only produced or emitted but is also destroyed through oxidation – a critical fact often left out of discussions about emissions.
    “After 10 years, the amount of methane produced by your cows will be equal to the amount destroyed,” Mitloehner said. “Cows are part of the cycle that destroys methane, whereas places that burn fossil fuels add new carbon to the atmosphere, overwhelming the environment.”
    The United States’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide is 11%. And only 1.1% of that is attributed to animal- and plant-based foods. The figures people toss around are often global-sourced numbers, not numbers reflecting actual U.S. production, making the problem seem much worse than it really is.
    “When you hear that livestock emits more emissions than industry or transportation, it’s just a ploy by activists to make people stop eating animal-sourced foods,” Mitloehner said. “I’m not saying farmers have no impact. You do have an impact, but that impact is relatively small. However, it’s good to know how to reduce it even further.”  
    Mitloehner and his team are involved with several studies at UC-Davis in which they measure pollutants generated on the dairy. He said the public is led to believe emission exposure is quite high, but Mitloehner has found that to not be true. The university has created bovine bubbles – group-housing situations that make it easy to measure emissions from cattle and compare different diets that can positively affect emissions.
    A new law in California is mandating a 40% reduction in methane by the year 2030. UC-Davis is looking at how dairy farmers can reduce methane production using different feed additives to lessen enteric emissions from belching. They are also examining ways of decreasing methane from manure storage by conducting studies on various dairies to measure methane emissions from lagoons. Their findings will enable farmers to reduce emissions based on real data and not theoretical numbers, Mitloehner said.
    Dairies in California face strict regulation, and farmers attend workshops on air quality to learn how to reduce greenhouse gases and emissions. Mitloehner warned farmers not to be complacent about climate change and assume these regulations will never reach the Midwest.
    “This topic is not going away anytime soon,” Mitloehner said. “The spotlight is on the dairy industry, and dairy producers everywhere need to be prepared to tackle this problem. Things that happen out in California will also happen here sooner or later, so you need to pay attention to what’s going on over there, just like I need to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe because that’s where it comes from. These ideas start in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, and then five years later, it comes to California, and five years after that, it comes to you.”
    Nationwide, the dairy industry has a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 25%. Mitloehner pointed out that no other sector is making these same types of commitments.
    “You’re stewards of the land, and nobody can say the dairy industry is not compassionate or does not care about the environment,” Mitloehner said.  
    Compared to 1950, the United States is producing 60% more milk on 16 million fewer cows, reducing the carbon footprint of a glass of milk by two-thirds, Mitloehner said.
    “The more efficiently we produce our food, the smaller our carbon footprint,” Mitloehner said. “Unfortunately, many people do not understand this. North America has the lowest carbon footprint of dairy production in the world. Yet, people think the opposite is true. You have to make sure to tell the story to others in a different, fact-based way.”
      Can the country eat its way out of climate change? Mitloehner said no.
    “Even if we all abandoned eating beef burgers or drinking milk, we would reduce greenhouse gases by such a small amount, it would not even be measurable or quantifiable,” Mitloehner said. “In one year’s time, a vegan reduces their carbon footprint by only half the amount of what is expended for one person to take one transatlantic flight. People would do more good reducing their use of fossil fuels.”
    Mitloehner stressed the importance of educating the public.
    “Engage in discussions with people who are interested in what you do and how you do it,” Mitloehner said. “If a millennial or someone from Generation Z asks how you produce your milk, the worst thing you can say is, ‘I don’t want to talk, go away. I know what I’m doing. I’m good at it. Goodbye.’ Don’t do that. Rather, use it as an opportunity to educate. You have a lot to be proud of and should share your knowledge with those who want to know.”
    In his presentation, Mitloehner made it clear the dairy industry must take a stand and help society see that dairy is not solely responsible for climate change and does not deserve the brunt of the blame. These accusations cannot go unchecked.
    “Don’t sit quiet while people say dairy emits the most greenhouse gases,” Mitloehner said. “If the sector is quiet, we make no progress. Equip yourself with the facts and be vocal. You have to start talking about it. You have a responsibility to tell your story.”