Environmental Impacts of a Large-scale Dairy Operation

Today I'm putting forward an ethical consumerism conundrum. What if you know that large-scale dairies are 'bad' for a number of reasons and you learn that there is one being proposed where you live?

This is what the people of Nocton in Lincolnshire, UK are facing. Nocton Dairies say that the farm will reduce carbon emissions, however it may bring with it, several other problems. It is to be started by a group of farmers who think that the 4000 plus unit will "surpass the highest environmental standards ever seen in the UK". However, the initial application was stalled because the Environment Agency cited an "unacceptable risk to groundwater supplies" and a failure to show how the farmers intended safely to dispose of the estimated 180,000 tonnes of slurry produced by the cows every year.

According to CAFFO campaigner, Deborah Wilson, "If the local council gives permission to this appalling proposal, they will be trampling on the people who elected them to office in preference to the business ambitions of two farmers who live many miles away from the region."

The dairy sector contributes over 4% of GHG according to FAO. In terms of 'methane-turnover', this is how it works: According to the farmers of the super-dairy, it will enable them to reduce overall GHG per unit of milk. On the flip side, these high-yielding systems use animals that are unable to last longer than 2-3 lactations. When the animal goes to slaughter you have to replace it with a new heifer which would take up to two years to produce any milk. 

In terms of over-all methane savings, it doesn't amount to very much.

Installing an anaerobic digester on the farm is going to be another method to reduce wastes and generate renewable energy on the proposed dairy-farm. According to FAO, such a unit will reduce methane emissions by 50-75%. Smaller dairy units who feed their cows on grasslands say that grazing cows absorb and sequester CO2 as well as produce less methane. Grazing also benefits biodiversity and boosts land fertility, both of which would be lost in the proposed dairy farm.

The other issue is soil contamination and water runoff. With large dairy farms there is a risk of nitrates contaminating water sources. Finally there is a question of animal health. With all this in mind, Nocton villager Judith Partridge said: "We still have no reason to think this is any good for our village." This comes even after the farm is said to create jobs for the village. The two farmers David Barnes from Lancashire and Peter Willes from Devon, who have proposed this dairy-farm have been taken aback by the public's reaction.

"We aim to demonstrate the farm, once operational, will cause little local impact and work well from an environmental and welfare perspective; this is before we consider any expansion, which would have to be the subject of a brand new planning application," said David.

Food Ethics council director Tom MacMillan is not convinced and has said, "It's jumping the gun to debate whether large-scale dairy is efficient, before people have agreed whether it is fair and humane. If ethical ways of farming meat and dairy are less efficient, then we need to eat less of their products. The answer clearly isn't to be unethical more efficiently."

CIWF chief executive Philip Lymbery succinctly has said, "Cows belong in fields, not in mega-dairies."

Source: The Ecologist, Tom Levitt.

Photo Credit: Lincolnshire Echo