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How important are dairy cattle for us and our planet? Let’s dis-Cow-er it together!

Cows and dairy products have been part of human existence for almost 10,000 years. In this episode, we focus on not taking our 4-legged friends for granted and imagining the nutritional, environmental and social consequences of a world without dairy cattle.

The synergy between humans and cows is deeply rooted in history and year by year, it becomes stronger. Dairy products provide humans with 39 essential nutrients, turning milk into one of the most precious and highly consumed food. In fact, as FAO reports, in 2020 the global milk production reached 860 million tonnes, within that more than 80% was produced by dairy cattle. In addition, despite their unavoidable but decreasing GHG release, cows’ role in the ecosystem and circular bioeconomy is gaining importance. So, what would happen if these animals and consequently dairy products, no longer existed?

The incomparable nutrient richness of cow’s milk

The first consequences to be outlined are those on human health. Though before starting, it is necessary to understand what milk is from a nutritive perspective.

Milk represents one of the most affordable nutrient-dense food for humans whose importance, within a balanced diet, cannot be ignored. Besides being among the largest providers of energy, dairy products also supply significantly high-quality protein and micronutrients, including:

Thanks to this nutrient richness, not only is dairy labelled by FAO as an important component of a healthy diet, but it is also scientifically related to positive health outcomes, clearly displayed in the infographics below:

Therefore, not surprisingly, milk can contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goal “Zero Hunger”, aiming to achieve global food security and poverty reduction through the supply of dairy products, showing itself to be a lifesaver in those regions of the world where high-quality protein is scarce.

With this backdrop, the disappearance of cow’s milk from the human diet would unavoidably mean a decrease in energy and essential nutrients availability, which should be sought in other products, through a careful and detailed eating pattern.

This process could be harder than it seems. In fact, replacing dairy milk with plant-based one, may not measure up nutritionally. For example, almond and rice milk contain, respectively, 98% and 92% less protein than cow’s milk.

The consequences would be even more severe in the world’s poorest nations, where reliable research and valid alternatives to cow’s milk might not be available. The data shows that in developing countries, mainly subsisting on vegetarian diets, the rates of wasting and malnutrition are demonstrably higher than in regions with regular access to dairy. These issues would therefore become more and more prevalent, due to the drastic deterioration of protein quality.

No more cows, no more natural fertilizers

From health implications, we now shift our focus to the environmental considerations. Here there are three main impacts to be explored:

  • Impact on GHG emissions: as every living being, cows produce emissions, too. In particular, they release Methane, Nitrogen and Carbon dioxide and, within the global agriculture environmental impact, dairy only accounts for 3%. This value is actually decreasing, as more and more farmers aim to optimize the efficiency of their herds, while reducing waste and emissions. Consequently, removing dairy cattle would lead to minor changes in GHG release.
  • Impact on the circular bioeconomy: considering the larger picture, and the role that dairy cattle play within the environment, it is now clear that the aftermath of their absence would be far worse than the impact they have. Cows, in fact, dine on by-products of other food industries, such as almond hulls, which otherwise would be sent to landfills. Moreover, cows’ manure is a source of Carbon sequestration and nutrients, which can be used as fertilizer for soil or even converted to electricity through Methane digesters. Hence, without cows, the use of synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels would increase, along with their considerable environmental impact.
  • Impact on land use: another aspect stemming from the absence of dairy is managing the land used for grazing cows and producing their feed. The reallocation may be neither straightforward, nor sustainable. In fact, many horticultural crops may not be suitable for the soil characteristics or the climate of areas formerly dedicated to dairy cattle. This could bring the need to introduce technological improvements, as the use of synthetic fertilizers, with further negative effects on the environment.

A society without cows: breaking the co-existence after 10.000 years

Among the major impacts of a world without cows, there would also be an aftermath on society, both from an economic and cultural perspective.

Approximately one billion people worldwide derive their livelihoods from dairy farms or the dairy industry and, in many rural regions, cattle are the main source of income.

Dairy farming also contributes to female emancipation. In developing countries, in fact, women can own livestock and are involved in the collection, processing and marketing of dairy products. Moreover, 37 million female leaders run dairy farms around the world.

Therefore, losing dairy cows would also mean threatening a delicate balance within society, leading to severe consequences for the economy, as well.

 After witnessing the key role that dairy cattle have been playing for 10.000 years and the dramatic impact of their disappearance from our planet, our biggest advice is to be grateful for your precious herd and take the maximum care of them. Remember that healthy and well-treated cows provide a high-quality milk for equally outstanding products, and this Italian farm is a perfect example. Make also sure not to miss our next blog episode, it will be helpful, too!


  • A world without cows Kanter, Mitch PhD; Moore, Donald Nutrition Today, 12/2020, Volume 55, Issue 6: 283-287
  • Climate change and the Global Dairy Cattle sector – FAO and GDP, 2019

ca2929en.pdf (

  • Contributions of dairy products to environmental impacts and nutritional supplies from United States agriculture Liebe, Hall, White Dairy Sci. 11/2020, Volume 103, Issue 11: 10867-10881
  • Dairy animals and their role in a sustainable food system Caroline Emond IDF, 2016

Dairy animals and their role in a sustainable food system - IDF (

  • Dairy as nutritional base to nourish the world – IDF, 10/2019

Dairy as a nutritional base to nourish the world - IDF (

  • Dairy Market Review December 2020 – FAO, 12/2020

Dairy Market Review - Emerging trends and outlook, December 2020 (

  • Dairy’s role in supporting a healthy immune system – IDF, 5/2020

Factsheet-011_2020_Dairys-Role-in-supporting-a-healthy-immune-system.pdf (

  • Gateway to dairy production and products: Social and gender issues – FAO

Dairy production and products: Social and gender issues (

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Fact006_2019-Health-Benefits.pdf (

  • Impact on GHG emissions when removing dairy cows Van Dijk Dairy Global, 1/2021

DairyGlobal - Impact on GHG emissions when removing dairy cows


Date: 22 February 2021

  • Summary:
    The importance of dairy farming and dairy cattle.