Ethical consumerism and sustainable production

Discipline: ethics; Keywords: animal welfare, improving efficiency, traditional systems, organic production, carbon footprint.

Ethical consumerism is a new concept used to describe the increasing interest of the consumer in the way food is produced, the practices employed, a concern for a low environmental impact, high animal welfare and optimal worker conditions. As a consequence, popular perceptions of sustainable agriculture appear to favour traditional systems, organic production, or that farms should only supply the local geographical area. Although most understand that improving efficiency will reduce expenses, resources and waste, the consumer often considers efficiency to be negatively related to ethical consumerism when applied to large-scale conventional food production systems. The question is if this perception is justified. In this contribution I will address the issue as it applies to dairying, the relevant research references being given at the end.

In a classical study in the US, 1944 dairy production was compared with 2007 dairy production. In 1944, 53 billion kg of milk was produced from 25.6 million dairy cattle. At the time the average herd contained 6 cows which were almost exclusively fed on pasture. Artificial insemination was in its infancy and antibiotics or effective drugs were limited or not yet available for animal use. By contrast, in 2007 the US dairy herd contained 9.2 million cows producing 84.2 billion kg of milk. Improvements in management, nutrition and genetics led to a 4-fold increase in milk yield per cow between 1944 and 2007. The effect on resources, environment, waste and land-use was dramatic since together with the reduction in lactating animals, the supporting herd (dry cows, bulls, replacement heifers etc) was of course also reduced. Thus, compared to 1944, the 2007 US dairy industry required only 21% of the dairy population, 23% of the feedstuffs, 10% of the land and 35% of the water to produce a set quantity of milk. Manure output per unit of milk produced in 2007 was 24% of that of 1944, the carbon footprint per unit of milk was reduced by 63%, or if expressed as total carbon footprint of the US dairy industry, reduced by 41%.

These results are not unique to the US and estimates show that there is a highly significant negative relationship between level of milk production and the carbon footprint per unit of milk. Countries with higher milk yields per cow most often use conventional TMR and supplemented pasture-based systems, whereas countries with low milk yields per cow more often use traditional and organic systems. The 2007 figures for the different regions of the world were: Milk yield per cow per lactation – North America = 8800kg, Western Europe = 6100kg, Oceania = 4400kg, Eastern Europe = 3900kg, Russian Federation = 3000kg, South-East and East Asia = 2800kg, Central and South America = 1700kg, Near East and North America = 1300kg, South Asia = 1000kg and Sub-Saharan Africa = 250kg. The latter figure apparently excludes South Africa. Based on life cycle analysis (LCA) which includes all carbon used from conception to consumer, the corresponding carbon footprint expressed as kg CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent per kg of milk were: North America = 1.3, Western Europe = 1.5, Oceania = 1.6, Eastern Europe = 1.6, Russian Federation = 1.7, South East and East Asia = 2.1, Central and South America = 3.3, Near East and North Africa = 3 7, South Asia = 4.7 and Sub-Saharan Africa = 7.6. To arrive at a possible figure for commercial herds in South Africa, the national average production in 2007 (to correspond with the figures above) was 4590kg and for cows in milk recording 6948kg, a difference of 51%.  In the context of the above regional milk yields and carbon footprints the South African national LCA carbon footprint could be 1.6 kg CO2 equivalent per kg milk and for milk recorded cows 1.4kg CO2 equivalent per kg milk. It is interesting that another calculation for South African commercial herds, based on a different approach, came up with a figure of 1.3 to 1.5 kg CO2 equivalent per kg milk. However, LCA’s for dairy production systems in different regions of South Africa have as yet not been researched officially and should be done as a matter of urgency in order to advise on mitigation options.      

What is to be learned from this research? Firstly, it is a misconception on the part of the consumer that traditional or organic systems are more environment-friendly than conventional systems, bearing in mind that food production needs to increase to feed the ever increasing world population. Additionally, it is a misconception that organic systems can achieve the same levels of production than conventional systems. At least four comparisons in the US showed that production levels are lower, between 15 and 27%. Secondly, efficiency of production which correlates with level of production is key to limit the environmental and climate change impact as the same amount of milk (or more) can be produced with less cows. It is therefore of concern that only about 20% of cows from commercial herds are in milk recording (bearing in mind the difference between cows in milk recording and those that are not) and the current disputes among role players threatening the continued existence of milk recording. Thirdly, ethical consumerism is not only about limiting environmental impact and resource use, but also about practices employed, animal welfare and optimal working conditions. These affect sustainability socio-economically. In fact, sustainability is often defined as having three interrelated components: environment, economic and social, with sustainability occurring through a balance of these factors. Every country, in fact every dairy farm, must find its optimal balance in this regard. Fourthly, recorded data in South Africa shows that cows on average achieve less than three lactations, which is a major concern that reflects sub-optimal udder health, animal comfort (welfare), management and other factors which limit the quest for higher milk yields per cow. These are major issues to be addressed by farmers, veterinarians, animal scientists and other advisers.


Capper, J.L., 2011. Replacing rose-tinted spectacles with a high-powdered microscope: The historical versus modern carbon footprint of animal agriculture. ANIMAL FRONTIERS Vol 1, No 1, pp 26-32.

Capper, J.L., Cady, R.A. & Bauman, D.E., 2009. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. JOURNAL OF ANIMAL SCIENCE Vol 87, pp 2160-2167.

Meissner, H.H., Scholtz, M.M. & Schönfeldt, H.C., 2012. The status, socio-economic and environmental impact, and challenges of livestock agriculture in South Africa.

Scholtz, M.M. & Grobler, S.M., 2009. A systems approach to the South African dairy industry. SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNAL OF ANIMAL SCIENCE Vol 39 (Suppl. 1), pp 116-120.