Due to a growing world population and increasing prosperity, the demand for good nutrition that provides an optimal intake of nutrients is growing. This affects the environmental impact. Feeding the growing world population in a responsible way requires sustainable and healthy nutrition, or in other words, a sustainable diet. Being a staple food product, milk fits in well with a healthy and sustainable diet.

Calcium and the absorption of ironAccording to the FAO, the global food production should increase by 70% between 2009 and 2050 in order to be able to meet the demand for food in 2050. Dairy farming can contribute to food security if attention is paid to the sustainability of the entire production process. Milk products are globally considered to be rich of nutrients and for this reason they are part of a sustainable and healthy diet. The FAO state that a sustainable and healthy nutrition is not only represented by a healthy diet that has a low environmental impact and offers sufficient nutrients, but that it also has to fit in with the existing food culture, protect biodiversity and the environment and, additionally, be accessible, affordable and safe.

Environmental impact

The production of food has an impact on the environment (land use, water, energy, raw materials). This also holds for dairy farming. Reducing this impact is a challenge and needs a wellconsidered and competent approach. A method of expressing environmental impact is measuring the emission of greenhouse gases. This is also called the carbon footprint (CO2 equivalents). The dairy sector is globally responsible for 2.7% of the total carbon footprint.

The environmental impact of the dairy chain can roughly be divided into environmental impact by raw milk production by the cow, transport of milk to the plant and processing of milk into dairy products. Within the Dutch dairy chain, the production of raw milk contributes most (about 70%) to the greenhouse gas emission. As the Dutch dairy farming sector is among the world’s most productive and environmentally strictest regulated dairy farming sectors, the carbon footprint of the Dutch raw milk is relatively low with an average of 1.27 kg CO2 equivalents per kg milk against about 2.4 kg CO2 equivalents per kg milk worldwide. A number of manure measures and productivity improvements have reduced the environmental impact of the Dutch dairy chain. The carbon footprint of the dairy farming sector decreased by 19% between 1990 and 2013.

Land use and cows’ feed

The carbon footprint of a food product is one way to express the environmental impact of a product. From the perspective of a both sustainable and healthy food pattern several factors are included, such as protection of biodiversity and the surroundings, animal health and welfare, but also things like provision of sufficient nutrients. In fact, 14.8% of the Dutch land that is used for dairy farming cannot be used for agriculture. On this land, for instance peatland, only grass is grown. Cows convert this for human beings indigestible grass into milk with a lot of nutrients and high-quality protein that is suitable for human consumption.

Another aspect is cows’ feed. A Dutch cow daily eats an average of 55 kg grass (75%) and maize (25%) grown on Dutch land, supplemented with 5 kg concentrate. The concentrate consists of maize products, soy, citrus fruit, palm kernels, coleseed, beets, wheat and other residual products from the food industry. Less than 10% of the cows’ feed is suitable for human consumption, the rest is only suitable for animals. The amount of protein produced by the cows is 4.38 times the amount of protein added through feed, calculated on the basis of the first milk production. Protein-rich soy bean meal that is also used for animal feed represents less than 5% of the diet of a dairy cow.


  1. Coenen P.W.H.G. et al (2014). National Inventory report 2014, Greenhouse Gas Emission in the Netherlands 1990-2012
  2. Dijkstra, J. et al (2013), Production efficiency of ruminants: feed, nitrogen and methane. In: Sustainable animal agriculture. Ed. E.Kebreab, CABI.
  3. FAO (2009) High Level Expert Form, How to feed the world 2050, Rome 12-13 October 2009
  4. FAO (2010). Animal Production and Health Division, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector, A Life Cycle Assesment, 2010
  5. FAO (2011). World Livestock 2011 Livestock in food security World, Rome 2011
  6. FAO (2012). Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, directions and solutions for policy, research and action, 2012
  7. FAO (2013). Milk and dairy products in human nutrition, 2013
  8. cbs.nl/nl-NL/menu/methoden/classificaties/overzicht/nso/ default.htm Feb 2015 (121 hectare veengrond in gebruik voor melkveehoudery/830 hectare grond voor melkveehouderij= 14.8%)
  9. duurzamezuivelketen.nl