food

And then they came for the cheese…

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.

By weight, our one and a half billion cows dominate life on earth, as pictured in this XKCD graphic or in more detail in this previous post. Wild animals make up just 3% of the total.

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.

12 comments

  1. Ok lets put aside pollution and resource problems but when does the ethics of how the animals are treated come into it. With due respect, Jeremy have you bothered to look into that?

    1. Absolutely, the lives of dairy cows are miserable and short – a cow can live 20 years, but the average dairy cow is shuffled off for beef after about four. Many of them are kept indoors all year, and cows are artificially inseminated to keep them pregnant or lactating so that the milk keeps coming. There are all kinds of ethical questions about dairy.

      Two reasons why I didn’t go into it in the post. First, I wanted to keep it about cheese specifically, rather than the wider issues in dairy more generally. And secondly, there are ways to raise dairy cows that answer many, if not all, the animal welfare issues and some of the sustainability ones too. That gets complicated, and the post gets long.

      I realise that I’m leaving important topics out, so you’re quite right to ask.

      1. Jeremy, I really don’t think that would be possible unless on a very small scale. Jains, after all, aren’t against dairy but they are thinking of village type operations.

        Now if one were to make it humane I’d imagine it wouldn’t be cost effective or just become a luxury good. At some stage, we will have to decide what things aren’t justifiable regarding resources used and pollution created esp co2, and meat and dairy are right up there with personal jets.

        And I really don’t think that is possible anyway to say it could be humane and environmentally sustainable, modern dairy means keeping cows constantly in milk which shortens their lives and they are killed as soon as they aren’t considered productive. The calves are torn away from their mothers causing mental anguish to both and the males are often killed soon after. Artificial insemination isn’t the most friendly procedure let alone the idea of forcing conception on an animal is problematic in its own right. & New Zealand is having heaps of trouble with nutrient runoff – which is common across the industry – and if that was properly controlled I wonder how much that would raise the cost of farm production?

        In the end, this is more in line with an argument saying we should cut back on dog fighting but not give it up.

        1. You’re right, sustainable dairy would have to be at smaller scale, and we can’t provide high welfare low emissions dairy to everyone in the world. Impossible. However, context is everything. There are places where cows are grazed among the trees for example, which is good for the forests. There are places where families maintain their own small herds, and depend entirely on their animals for nutrition – especially nomadic groups that don’t practice settled farming. I don’t think we can apply a one size fits all response to dairy that respects those traditions, and teasing apart those nuances would make a longer post.

          I’ll come back to some of that in future posts, because it’s a neglected issue. In this one I wanted to respond to friends and family who had mentioned cheese specifically.

          On animal welfare, I agree and I’m a supporter of Compassion in World Farming. Since dairy is so embedded in a British diet though, we have to work towards that long term reduction. Banning it is politically impossible, and it’s unlikely to get critical mass through personal actions alone. It will have to be one step at a time – raising standards, promoting alternatives, and changing personal habits. For a start, we could stop subsidising it.

          1. Yes, its a start and why not include cameras in dairies and that children are required to learn how their food is produced. From farm to slaughterhouse include everything.

  2. Great article. We are (at least in western Europe) taxing the hell out of transportation. We need to think about taxing the meat and dairy industry if not for ethical reasons then to fight global warming. That will direct people to use those products less often. It hopefully will also make a dent into the ethical disaster of eating sentient beings on such a scale.

    1. Yes, taxing meat and dairy might be part of the solution. I can imagine the political nightmare that would be to bring in though. Not a reason not to try, but it would need a concerted awareness raising campaign beforehand to legitimise it and fend off the tabloid hysteria.

  3. I’m a cheese lover but just tried my first vegan cheese (Violife ‘classic'[?]) yesterday. Bit strange but not too bad. Found you have to look closely at ingredients lists; some products use palm oil (which may be highly destructive of forests, etc). BBC good food seem to have a good round up; I’d like to try some more of those:
    http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/review/best-vegan-cheese
    a nice touch is they list the ingredients for each brand/type

      1. I’m quite enjoying the Violife which I tried first. Also struck by another idea: someone yesterday told me how easy it is to make oat milk (just whizz oats and water in a blender, and strain liquid into a bowl overnight, adding flavourings to taste..). I strikes me that vegan cheese may also not be ‘rocket science’? Perhaps we’ll see a burgeoning crop of home v-cheese recipes??

        1. It seems likely, as long as people view vegan cheese as a category of food in itself. Trying to make it as close as possible to ‘real’ cheese could turn out to be a recipe for highly processed and unnatural food.

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