Centre d'investissement de la FAO

Pour on the benefits!

Five ways the dairy sector can contribute to sustainable agrifood systems

Every day, milk and dairy products provide essential nourishment to billions of people worldwide. From young children to older adults, milk can contribute to healthy and active lives. Thanks to its nutrient-rich composition milk is the third biggest supplier of protein and the fifth largest provider of energy, improving global nutrition and strengthening human health. 

The challenges faced by agrifood systems today are major. Producing more food to feed a growing population is only part of the picture. The real need is to ensure access to essential and adequate nutrients for everyone. With between 720 and 811 million people suffering from hunger in 2020, milk and dairy products can significantly contribute to a Zero Hunger world. 

Global milk production has grown largely in response to increased consumer demand, and this has implications for the sustainability of dairy systems. FAO and the Global Dairy Platform are partnering to make dairy production more sustainable and to enhance the contribution of dairy to better agrifood systems.

Here are five ways the dairy sector benefits us and contributes to healthy agrifood systems:

1. Achieving food security and nutrition

Milk and dairy products are crucial allies against hunger and food insecurity. They are high in macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), as well as essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, calcium and magnesium. Consumption of milk and dairy products has been associated with increased linear growth in both wealthier and poorer populations.

With hundreds of millions of people who still don’t have access to adequate and nutritious food and suffer from chronic food deprivation, malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies, milk and dairy products provide a good source of nutrition in all stages of life.

2. Offering livelihoods and spurring economic growth

Dairy systems provide a living for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. They also directly contribute to the livelihoods of more than 500 million extremely poor people, many of whom are small-scale dairy producers.

Out of the 570 million farm holdings worldwide, more than one out of four keep at least one milk animal, including cows, buffaloes, camels, goats and sheep. Cows are by far the most common dairy animal in high-, low- and middle-income countries. Driven by population and economic growth, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, the demand for livestock products is expected to increase substantially in the next 30 years. By promoting best practices for livestock management, FAO is helping to ensure that this increase in demand is managed sustainably.

3. Promoting One Health

Human health is closely linked to the health and welfare of animals and to that of the environment. Improving animal health is crucial for the health of humans and of the planet; this concept is known as One Health and it is a part of the holistic approach for which FAO advocates. Furthermore, animal diseases constrain production and reduce livestock’s contribution to resilient livelihoods, economic growth and food security.

Both human and animal health have historically benefited from the use of antimicrobials. Yet, use of antimicrobials in livestock is now almost three times that in human medicine. With levels of antimicrobial resistance and associated consequences rising globally, livestock systems should shape their responses toward sustainability in a way that reduces the need for these drugs. FAO supports better disease prevention and veterinary treatments, good agricultural practices and vaccination programmes to protect the health of dairy animals, while helping farmers and pastoralists reduce the use of antimicrobials and manage the risk of antimicrobial resistance at its root.

4. Contributing to the conservation of biodiversity and genetic resources

Most people are aware of the impact that livestock have on natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions but not many are aware of how sustainable livestock systems can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and genetic resources for food and agriculture. When managed sustainably, livestock contribute to important ecosystem functions, such as nutrient cycling, soil organic carbon sequestration and maintaining agricultural landscapes.

The FAO’s Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) partnership, for instance, offers a global platform for governments, farmers, policy makers, producers and researchers from all over the world to discuss and develop guidelines that assess the impacts of livestock on the environment.

5. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Dairy production increased globally by 30 percent between 2005 and 2015. Under business as usual, this would have increased greenhouse gas emissions by 38 percent. However, growth in production was achieved in part by improvements in efficiency and milk yields, so greenhouse gas emissions increased by only 18 percent during this period. The dairy sector is working to build on these improvements in its response to global warming and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

The good news is that there are also many opportunities to reduce emissions from livestock. The Pathways to Dairy Net Zero initiative, for instance, is a new climate initiative launched by a group of dairy stakeholders, spearheaded by the Global Dairy Platform and supported by FAO, to tackle the contribution of dairy systems to global warming, whilst at the same time continuing to provide nutritious foods and livelihoods of millions of people.

FAO, the Global Dairy Platform and other partners are working to build a sustainable future for dairy and for agrifood systems as a whole. By continuing to work toward sustainability, dairy can play a major role in achieving a world without hunger.

Photo credit © FAO/Alessandra Benedetti