Key Environmental Indicators - Tracking the Dairy Farm Sector's Progress in Sustainability

Today, dairy farmers in Canada are producing milk in a more sustainable way and the dairy sector continues to track their progress. Thanks to ongoing efforts, milk produced on Canadian farms has one of the lowest environmental footprints in the world.

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This article focuses on a few of the key environmental indicators that are officially tracked on Canadian dairy farms. These key indicators include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (commonly known as the carbon footprint), as well as water and land use. The Government of Canada tracks water use and emissions on a yearly basis, and farmland used by dairy farms is tracked in the Census of agriculture every five years. These indicators are useful for tracking the progress made over time by Canadian dairy farmers in producing milk sustainably. As shown below, today's milk production in Canada accounts for about 1% of our country’s total GHG emissions.1

Dairy’s environmental footprint based on key indicators tracked by the government of Canada1

Key Environmental Indicators Canadian Milk Production's Share of Canada's Environmental Footprint
GHG emissions 1% of Canada's total GHG emissions1
Water use 0.02% of freshwater in South Canada2
Land use 3% of agricultural land in Canada3

Measuring progress with Life Cycle Assessments

The government-tracked indicators are among several used when conducting environmental Life Cycle Assessments (LCA), which show that dairy farmers have made great strides in reducing the carbon footprint of milk produced in Canada.4,5 Life Cycle Assessments are quantitative assessments used to measure and evaluate environmental impacts based on internationally standardized (ISO) methodology. The LCA ISO methodology used to track the Canadian dairy farm sector’s progress is the same as that used by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).4,5 

These comprehensive studies systematically take into account factors throughout the whole milk production life cycle. This includes the footprint of inputs such as farming equipment, power, crops, cow feed and transporting milk to the processor’s gate. These dairy LCAs express GHG emissions in the standard carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq), and also track water and land use.

The most recent (2016) Life Cycle Assessments from Canada and the FAO show that Canadian milk production has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world: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
  • In 2016, producing one litre of milk in Canada generates less than half of the GHG emissions compared to the global average of GHG emitted during the production of a litre of milk;4,5
  • From 2011 to 2016, the carbon footprint of a litre of milk produced in Canada decreased by 7%.4

Canadian dairy farms’ progress over time, according to the Life Cycle Assessment:4​​​​​​​

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

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

Want to learn more?

Learn more about the progress Canadian dairy farmers are making and their ongoing commitment to sustainability.

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