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Dairy industry: Environmental impacts, cruelty, facts and statistics

Every year, hundreds of millions of cattle are impregnated to produce milk for people to drink or turn into products such as cheese and yogurt. Many consumers don’t realize that the shocking reality for these mothers is a short life full of suffering with barely any respite from pregnancy. When they do give birth, their young males are often taken from them swiftly and sold to be slaughtered as veal. Their horns are cruelly burned off or otherwise often removed without any pain relief.. The environment also suffers from the burden of millions of cows and the manure that they produce, which wreaks havoc on waterways.

What products make up the dairy industry?

Several products make up the wider dairy industry including yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Though these items come in a wide variety of different forms with different flavors and different uses, they all have one thing in common: they are made out of milk. Whether the product is blueberry goat cheese, crema Mexicana, or dahi, the milk used to create these products has a common origin: a mother animal whose body produces the milk to feed and nourish their own young. The only natural way that mammals, whether a cow, human, or goat, are able to produce milk (barring specific rare medical conditions), is by getting pregnant.

Because the dairy industry is so vast, hundreds of millions of animals are kept on farms to supply the milk needed for the continued production of dairy products. Of the milk produced by these mothers, roughly 81% is cow’s milk, 15% comes from mother buffaloes, and 2% percent from goats, while sheep, yaks, other equines, and camels produce the remainder.

How much money does the dairy industry make?

In 2020, the global dairy industry was worth an astounding $827.4 billion. By 2026, projections suggest that it will grow to a value of $1,128 billion. One of the primary drivers behind the projected increase in the value of the dairy industry is an increase in countries including India and Pakistan where the average income and population are both increasing. One factor is that as income increases, more people are likely to eat outside their homes and, consequently, consume more foods containing dairy, such as pizza and cheeseburgers.

What is wrong with the dairy industry?

Dairy plays a central role in many dishes around the world, and the industry sells itself as an essential dietary component. Yet the milk and dairy industry is associated with a vast array of problems that concern us all, including animal welfare, environmental damage, and even public health.

Dairy industry environmental impacts

Industrial animal agriculture is recognized as a major contributor to climate change and environmental degradation. The dairy industry is no exception and contributes heavily to the destruction of natural habitats, soil degradation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions

When it comes to greenhouse gases, animal agriculture as a whole is responsible for at least 16.5% of all anthropogenic emissions. Anthropogenic emissions are those that are directly related to human activity. Of that total, the dairy industry is responsible for 30% of emissions, the equivalent of 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide released by the industry yearly.


When it comes to the impacts of the dairy industry on water, it is important to consider two different factors: water usage and water pollution.

Water usage

Research has demonstrated that on average worldwide, it takes 628 liters of water to produce a single liter of cow’s milk. Much of this water is given directly to the cows, used in refrigeration systems, or used to process the milk into other products. The researchers found that plant-based alternatives like oat and soy milk only require 48 and 28 liters of water, respectively, to produce one liter of milk.

Water pollution

Every day, the average dairy cow produces anywhere from 106 to 150 pounds of manure. The amount of manure produced by even a small dairy of 200 cows is greater than a town home to 5,000 to 10,000 residents. More manure is produced by dairy cows than can be applied to fields as fertilizer, leading to either overapplication and an excess of nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil, or large open-air vats filled with a slurry of fecal matter and water. These vats often start leaking, the contents seeping into the ground and making their way into the groundwater or nearby streams and rivers.

Aquatic dead zones

When the pollutants released by dairy farms enter the water, they increase the severity and prevalence of aquatic dead zones. Dead zones can be caused by the nutrient-rich runoff which encourages the growth of algae. When this algae dies and decomposes it leads to an imbalance of oxygen in the water killing off the other plants and animals that inhabit that area. The frequency and severity of dead zones have both been increasing, causing great concern for the health of aquatic habitats.


Soil compaction happens when cattle or heavy machinery pass over land that is wet, compacting the soil and preventing plants from being able to grow to re-oxygenate the soil.

Dairy industry cruelty

The cruelty inherent in the industry is a powerful factor that influences many to give up dairy products for ethical reasons. Whether considering the mother animals, or the young birthed from their pregnancies, cruelty is evident.


Among the many appalling common practices present within the dairy industry, perhaps one of the most jarring is the production of veal. Veal is the meat of a calf or young beef cow. Most of the calves that are slaughtered for veal are birthed by dairy cows. The majority of these calves are male dairy calves, as, unlike their sisters, they cannot be raised to replace their mothers for milk production. These calves are typically slaughtered at between 16 and 18 weeks old.


Dehorning and disbudding are two common practices on dairy farms. Both are performed to prevent calves from developing horns and reduce the risk of injury to humans and other cattle, while also saving space. There are three main types frequently used on farms today: hot iron disbudding, chemical disbudding, and amputation dehorning. These processes have been associated with considerable amounts of pain in cows, as indicated by behavioral and physiological changes.

Tail docking

The practice of tail docking dairy cattle originated in New Zealand as a means of maintaining cleanliness and decreasing the occurrence of mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary tissue often caused by trauma or infection. Since its widespread adoption, these arguments for the practice have been debunked. Professional veterinary organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, hold the position that the negatives, including pain and stress during fly season, outweigh any potential positives, and that claims made about the benefits of increased cleanliness are inaccurate.

Is the dairy industry declining?

Unfortunately, demand for dairy products has been increasing, led by countries where the population is growing and where swathes of consumers have disposable incomes growing from a comparatively low starting point. Interestingly, across Europe and North America the demand for fresh dairy products is static or actually declining as individuals turn to plant-based substitutes instead.

How to stop the dairy industry

One of the best things that we can do as individuals to stop the dairy industry is to stop contributing to it with our money and resources. By choosing plant-based milk and dairy alternatives, we are able to enjoy our favorite foods without the animals needing to suffer. Try one of our vegan challenges to help you get started.

What is the impact of veganism on the dairy industry?

The number of people trying vegan or vegetarian diets and plant-based alternatives to their favorite foods is steadily increasing. In fact, in 2021 a survey found that worldwide an astonishing 81% of consumers had tried plant-based milk and 48% had tried other dairy alternative products. The alternative dairy market is expected to reach a value of $44.89 billion by 2027 and the vegan cheese market is expected to grow 12.8% by 2027. With an increasing interest in plant-based alternatives to dairy products, the dairy industry is feeling the pressure.

Dairy industry facts and statistics

  • In 2019, the global plant-based cheese market was worth $1.01 billion.

  • Over a ten-month period, a dairy cow will produce an average of 28 liters of milk every single day. During peak lactation, she may produce up to 60 liters of milk in one day.

  • Dairy cows are slaughtered young, typically only living to be a little over five years old.

  • The largest dairy in the world, Al-Safi Dairy Farm, is in Saudi Arabia and in 2010 housed 37,000 dairy cows who produced 58 million gallons of milk every year.


When it comes to dairy, there are many issues surrounding its production, ranging from ethical considerations to the environment and animal welfare. With so many alternatives available that require less environmental resources, are healthier and free from the burden of thousands of suffering animals, making the switch away from dairy seems like an obvious choice. It’s the right thing to do for the planet and for the beings that call it home, whether human or nonhuman.


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