Sustainable Agriculture - How Dairy Farmers Are Doing Their Part

Today, Canada is one of several developed countries producing milk in a more sustainable way. For decades, Canadian dairy farmers have demonstrated their commitment to improving the productivity, efficiency, and sustainability of their farms through investment in research and adoption of new and innovative approaches and technologies. Thanks to ongoing efforts, the Canadian dairy farming sector now has one of the lowest environmental footprints in the world.

Image d'une ferme laitière prise de loin

Canadian dairy farmers are doing their part to contribute to a sustainable food supply in order to ensure a well-nourished population and healthy planet today and for future generations. This article focuses on a few of the key environmental indicators that are being tracked on Canadian dairy farms, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (commonly known as the carbon footprint), as well as water and land use.

Research and innovation help advance sustainability

Informed by science, dairy farmers continue to reduce their impact on the environment, by adopting practices that benefit both the land and the animals. Large strides have been achieved through better cow nutrition, genetics, and more comfortable housing and modern farming practices. Land management is more precise, so it takes less land and water to grow nutritious crops needed to feed cows. Farmers invest in cow genetics, optimal feed, and comfort, all of which improves cow productivity. More content, comfortable, well-fed cows produce more milk. 

Ensuring optimal nutrition and cow comfort helps to improve the efficiency and sustainability of Canadian dairy farms. Thanks to ongoing efforts in these areas, cows produced three times as much milk in 2020 as they did in 1973.1,2 Gains in efficiency continue, and have increased even faster in recent years, such that cows produced 17% more milk in 2020 than in 2012.1,2 The adoption of new technologies, optimal cow feeding strategies and major investments in research and innovation have helped substantially reduce the environmental impact of Canadian milk production over the past 30 years - and progress is ongoing.

How Canadian milk production compares to other sectors

Canadian milk production accounts for about 1% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.3 This is minimal compared to the amount of greenhouse gas produced by other important sectors in Canada, such as road transportation (20%), the production of electricity and heat (12%), manufacturing (6%) or energy used in homes (5.5%).3

Measuring progress in sustainability

Environmental Life Cycle Assessments show that dairy farmers have made great strides in reducing the carbon footprint of milk produced in Canada.4,5 Life Cycle Assessments are comprehensive, systematic, quantitative assessments used to measure and evaluate environmental impacts based on internationally standardized (ISO) methodology. The carbon footprint is expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq), which is a standard way to quantify greenhouse gas emissions. Life Cycle Assessments from Canada and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that Canadian milk production has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world:4,5

  • From 2011 to 2016, the carbon footprint of a litre of milk produced in Canada decreased by 7%;4
  • Producing one litre of milk in Canada generates less than half of the GHG emissions compared to the global average of GHG emissions to produce a litre of milk;4,5
  • The production of a litre of milk in Canada generates 0.94 kg of CO2-eq while the global average for producing one litre, according to the FAO, is 2.5 kg.4,5

According to Government data and Environmental Life Cycle Assessment calculations, Canadian milk production uses:

  • Less than 3% of all agricultural land in Canada;6
  • Only 0.02% of the freshwater supply in the southern (most populated) part of Canada.7

In practice

Canadian dairy farmers continue to adopt practices that benefit the environment. The environmental impact of milk production has decreased substantially over time in Canada. 

Canadian Dairy Farmers' Progress in Sustainable Agriculture, based on Environmental Life Cycle Assessments (LCA):4

Key Environmental LCA Indicators for Dairy Farming in Canada Total Canadian Milk Production in 2016                                       
GHG  1% of Canada`s total GHG emissions
Water Use  0.02% of freshwater in S. Canada
Land Use  3% of agricultural land in Canada


Key Environmental LCA Indicators for Dairy Farming in Canada Environmental LCA performed better in 2016 than in 2011, per litre of milk, by:
GHG  7% less
Water Use  6% less
Land Use 11% less


Sustainable healthy diets

The environment is just one of the many factors that contribute to sustainable healthy diets. According to the FAO:

“Sustainable Healthy Diets are dietary patterns that promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable. The aims of Sustainable Healthy Diets are to achieve optimal growth and development of all individuals and support functioning and physical, mental, and social wellbeing at all stages for present and future generations; contribute to preventing all forms of malnutrition (i.e. undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, overweight and obesity); reduce the risk of diet-related NCDs; and support the preservation of biodiversity and planetary health. Sustainable healthy diets must combine all dimensions of sustainability to avoid unintended consequences.”8

Milk products make sense in sustainable healthy diets

Canadian dairy farmers have been innovating for many years to nourish a growing population.

Milk products are affordable, nutrient-dense foods that have a long tradition in healthy diets. They’re a key source of high-quality protein, plus 6 of the 8 nutrients that many Canadians now fall short of, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin D.9

Want to learn more?

This article covers just a few of the key indicators that track the progress being made by Canadian dairy farmers in producing milk sustainably. Learn more about Dairy Farmers of Canada’s ongoing commitment to sustainability.

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