A few weeks ago I wrote about dairy production and its impact on the environment. I had quite a few comments from friends and family about that post, and almost all of them were variations of “no! not the cheese!”
A lot of people would find it easier to give up meat than to give up cheese, so I think I should say a bit more about it. And the first thing to say is don’t panic – you don’t have to give it up if you don’t want to. Living responsibly isn’t about giving things up all the time. It’s a matter of making informed choices. In the case of cheese, that may mean less or different. The future needn’t be bleak and cheese-less.
Let’s start with why it matters. Cheese is a climate change problem because it’s made with milk. Milk comes from cows, and there are quite simply too many of them. If aliens were investigating Earth for the first time, peering at it through their telescopes, they would conclude that it was a planet of cows.
Cows produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Altogether the meat and dairy industry is responsible for more climate changing gases than the whole transport sector, but gets far less attention. If we are to avoid climate disaster, we have to reduce the number of cows in the world. Yes, I know cows are gentle and innocent creatures, and beautiful in their own way. And yes, it is possible to produce meat and dairy with a much lower impact. Still, as a grand total, there are too many.
Land is another consideration, because meat and dairy takes up over 80% of agricultural land. Not all of that is suitable for crops, but feeding the world’s growing population would be much easier if we ate more plants directly, rather than feeding them to animals first.
The dairy industry is also a concern from an animal welfare point of view. Since only the females produce milk and you can’t guarantee the sex of new calves, the milk industry is inseparable from the meat industry. If you are a vegetarian because you don’t agree with killing animals, then cheese is a problem too. And eggs for that matter.
To look specifically at cheese, it has a high environmental impact because a lot of milk goes into it. As this graph from the New Scientist shows (really good article on cheese in a recent issue), cheese has a bigger footprint than pork and chicken – though considerably smaller than beef.
If you want to choose a vegan diet, that’s great. But don’t write off the question of cheese because you don’t want to go that far. It’s not an all or nothing choice.
If you want to eat cheese, eat it. Maybe don’t have it every day, or avoid snacking on it when browsing in the fridge. When you do have cheese, have the good stuff and take the time to really appreciate it. Choose softer cheeses – camembert has half the environmental impact of cheddar, and a baked camembert is a beautiful thing. If you’re lucky enough to have local varieties or family farms that produce it nearby, support those rather than the mass-produced and lower welfare supermarket cheeses.
Hey, I like cheese too. I don’t want to live in a world without it. But I don’t want to live in a world fundamentally altered by climate change either. So let’s make informed decisions about what we buy, what we eat, and the world we shape with our food habits.