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How to Realize the Great Potentials of Low-Carbon Dairy Industry of China

2021-5-17 9:28:08 Comments:0 Views:1516 category:SDDDC News

The Political Bureau of CPC Central Committee held the 29th Session on April 30th to discuss how to achieve ecological conservation under new social and economic situations. During the session, Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of CPC, pointed out that to lower the carbon emission and to achieve carbon neutralization are not only a solemn promise China has made to the world, but also a commitment to an extensive and profound economic and social change, which can only be honored through painstaking efforts. He instructed all levels of CPC committees and governments to take effective measures and make firm plans to achieve resource-efficient and environmentally friendly economic development. Unnecessary projects with high energy consumption and high carbon emissions are prohibited. According to the 2020 report published by World Resources Institute, agriculture contributed 18.4% of the total carbon emissions of the world, of which animal farming made up 31.5%. In other words, animal farming alone produced 5.8% of the total carbon emissions. Ruminants, due to rumen fermentation, generate more greenhouse gas than monogastric animals such as the swine and the chicken.

In an online forum dedicated to discussions of low-carbon dairy industry held on May 6th, Professor Shengli Li, Director of Sino-Dutch Dairy Development Centre (SDDDC), Chief Scientist of the National Technology System of Dairy Industry, and Professor of China Agricultural University, pointed out that low-carbon dairy farming is the path we must take since China launched its carbon neutralization compaign in 2021. According to the statistics of carbon footprint in milk published by AgResearch, among all the main milk-producing countries, New Zealand has the lowest carbon footprint, with carbon emissions equivalent to 0.77kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of milk production. Following New Zealand are Uruguay, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden, their carbon footprints being 0.84kg, 0.86kg, 0.9kg, and 1kg per kilogram of milk production, respectively. Producing one kilogram of milk in China will generate carbon emissions equivalent to 1.68kg of carbon dioxide on average. From this perspective, there are great potentials for China’s dairy industry to cut carbon emissions. Besides, the government is currently drafting regulations to set carbon emission quotas for various industries, and it is expected that dairy industry will be included in the quota system.

How could dairy farming lead the path to reducing carbon footprint? In order to answer this question, SDDDC invited experts from China and the Netherlands to join an online forum, “How to Reduce Carbon Footprint in Milk”, that it held on May 6th. In the forum, the guests shared their enlightening studies and understandings on dairy industry’s carbon emissions, evaluations of carbon footprint of domestic dairy farming, measures to reduce carbon footprint, etc.


Professor Shengli Li believes that with the challenges come the opportunities. There are great potentials for developing low-carbon dairy farming. Firstly, dairy farming can benefit from reducing carbon emissions, because to cut carbon emissions, farmers have to improve feeding efficiency, reduce the use of veterinary drugs, and process and recycle the manure generated, which in turn will effectively improve the farms’ competitivity and long-term profitability. In addition, low-carbon farming is not only economically beneficial, but also ideal for building a good brand image, as it will be an embodiment of China’s dairy industry’s commitment to protecting the global environment. Besides, it is predicted that in future, low-carbon farming will be vital for dairy farms to survive and thrive after the carbon emission quotas are implemented. Dairy industry’s carbon footprint may come from any and all steps of milk production, including capital investment, feed production and processing, milk production, manure processing and recycling, as well as transportation and energy consumptions involved in any of those steps. Farmers who are able to accomplish those steps with lower carbon footprint will gain advantages over their competitors in the market.

The forum was hosted by James Su, the Secretary-General of SDDDC.


Dr. Corina van Middelaar, Associated Professor of WUR Animal Production Systems, revealed in her report that, according to FAO data, 14.5% of the total greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activities came from animal farming, mostly including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc. She argued that greenhouse gas emissions can be seen as a great loss to the biosystem. Methane emissions are a loss of energy; 89% of the animal farming-generated methane emissions come from ruminants’ digestion system, 10% from manure, and the last 1% from feed (such as rice straw). The wasted nitrous oxide is a loss of fertilizer; 56% of nitrous oxide emissions from animal farming are generated by the storage and application of fertilizers and grazing, 26% from the use of nitrogenous fertilizer, and 17% from fertilizer production. Carbon dioxide emissions reflect the loss of fuel economy as well as organic materials; 48% of the carbon dioxide emissions from animal farming result from the production of feeds, 35% from the changes of land (such as deforestation), and 17% from self-consumption of energy. Therefore, reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases can help to fight against global climate change, as well as to improve the economic effectiveness of the farming industry. In addition, she also presented the intensities of greenhouse gas emissions of different animals (see the figures below), among which the beef cattle represent the highest intensity. The intensities can be significantly influenced by the farming methods of ruminants and the processing techniques of produce.

 Intensities of Greenhouse gas emissions of Different Animals

(Unit: kg CO2-eq / kg protein)  

In terms of dairy farming, cows’ intestines, feeds, and fertilizers are major sources of greenhouse gases.

Dr. Corina van Middelaar argued that there are five measures that can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. First, evaluate the emissions during the entire lifecycle of cows and the whole production chain of dairy products. Some strategies can immediately reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in certain stage; for example, using corn silage instead of grass silage can reduce the greenhouse gases produced directly by cows, but if examined in the entire production chain, the reduction may be offset by the consequent increase in other stages. Second, improve the productivity of animals by adding feed additives, optimizing the feed formulation and enhancing the accuracy of feeding amounts, and upgrade the management of the farms by lowering the proportion of the non-productive animals, promoting animal welfare, and recycling manure. The third measure is to minimize the use of fossil fuels, protecting the farmland, and increasing soil carbon sequestration. This is believed to be one of the most promising measures, especially for pasturing. Fourthly, we have to consider not only the production, but also the consumption of goods. Reducing the consumption of resource-intensive animal products can be beneficial to lowering the greenhouse gas emissions. The fifth means worthy of our attention is to balance the competition for resources between food production and feed production. To mitigate the competition, we may use only the infertile lands unsuitable for food production for growing grass or for pasturing, and recycle byproducts of food production for animals’ feeds. In this way, animal farming can be better integrated into the circular agriculture.

Dr. Corina van Middelaar also gave her advice on building China’s model of reducing emissions. She believed that the existing experiences and knowledge from Europe can be a good reference, but China’s dairy industry should also focus on the demands and the expectations of the policy makers. An efficient model that works best for China’s dairy industry can only be developed based on a deep understanding of the domestic dairy farming (including factors such as climate, commonly used coarse fodder, etc.), and a careful design of every detail of the production process in response to the requirements of local regulations.

Dr. Wei Wang, Associate professor at China Agriculture University, demonstrated in her report, “Strategies for Large-Scale Dairy Farms in China to Lower Carbon Emissions”, that carbon footprint and food chain are closely entwined. From upstream farming to downstream packaging, transporting and retailing, all stages of the food production generate and emit various levels of greenhouse gases. The intensity of greenhouse gas emissions of beef cattle farming is the highest, followed closely by lamb growing. Dairy products rank relatively low among all the animal products in terms of intensities of greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on the forecasts about the production and the consumption (see the figure below), the shortage of supplies of beef, lamb, and dairy products will still exist even by 2050, when the demands for beef and lamb, and the dairy products, will reach to 17.8kg and 77.8kg per person per year, respectively. With the economic development and the upgrading of residents’ consumption patterns, come the increases of demands for high-quality animal products (including beef, lamb, milk, etc.), which in turn will drive the constant growth of ruminant livestock. 

Countries: CN-China; IN-India; PK-Pakistan; AR-Argentina; ET-Ethiopia; DE-Germany; CH-Switzerland; IE-Ireland

China is the largest importer of dairy products and lamb, and the second largest importer of beef in the world. The consumption, production and trading of dairy products, beef, and lamb, have significant influence on the environment. According to a research conducted by Zhejiang University, the production of grass feeds, lamb and beef, dairy products, corn and soybean as feeds, and other ruminant-related products, generated 12 million tons of CO2-eq in China in 2012.

According to the statistics from National Dairy Industry and Technology System, large-scale dairy farms (any farm with a total herd of no less than 500) make up about 49% of the total dairy farms in China, and the product costs of those large-scale farms are generally higher than their smaller competitors. The costs of feeds are the major contributor to this difference. A research conducted in 147 dairy farms in Hebei Province in 2019 showed that most dairy farms fed their cattle more than the cows actually needed. Overnutrition is a prevalent problem in large domestic dairy farms. Therefore, there is considerable room for improvement of feeding efficiency. Besides, most of domestic dairy farms depend largely on imported feeds, which also push up their costs.  

According to a FAO 2013 report, feed ration skills may contribute up to 70% of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, especially the skills to optimize the formulation of feed rations. Other useful methods related to feed rations include optimizing the rations of protein and calories in the feeds, meeting the nutrition demands of the animals with accurate feeding, taking advantage of locally produced grass feeds and agricultural by-products, and improving soil carbon sequestration. In the end, Dr. Wei Wang also suggested that studies on domestic dairy farming continue to explore feasible strategies for mitigating the carbon emissions, such as developing interventions, and evaluating the carbon footprint of each individual farm. The carbon equivalent value per kilogram of milk may become a new quality indicator in the future, and milk with lower carbon equivalent value may gain higher added value.

In the Q&A session, Dr. Wei Wang shared her understandings of the separation of animal farming and crop growing in China. First, because of the restriction on the trading of land, most dairy farms are not able to obtain enough land to grow coarse fodder themselves, and even if they are able to find enough land, the costs are usually excessively high. Secondly, most dairy farms lack the skills and knowledge of grass growing, so are unable to grow high-quality grass anyway. The last but not the least, there are not enough supports from the governments to develop the model that combines animal farming and crop growing. Tax incentives, subsidies and other official supports are needed for farmers to invest in this new model.


Professor Hongmin Dong, Deputy Director General of Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, stated in her report – “Carbon Footprint of China’s Dairy Farms and Measures for Emission Reduction” – that animal farming is a main source of greenhouse gas emissions in China. The intensities of greenhouse gas emissions of different animals can vary remarkably, and cows rank among the top five in terms of intensity. The carbon footprint exists in the entire production chain of dairy products.


The Intensities of Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Different Animals

Professor Hongmin Dong’s team worked with Wageningen University and China Agricultural University and launched CCAFS project, aiming to evaluate the carbon footprint of dairy products, determine the critical points of greenhouse gas emissions, lay the scientific foundation for reducing emissions by improving production efficiency, explore the feasible measures for emission reduction, increase the productivity, lower the production costs, and eventually cut the emissions of greenhouse gases. This project is designed based on the methodology of carbon footprint assessment. By building mathematical model, developing analysis software and comparing data from typical farms, the project will shed light on the carbon footprint of each stage of the production as well as each type of greenhouse gases, so will it reveal the different contributions to carbon emissions of various sizes of dairy farms. The project will generate a list of practical and effective measures to cut carbon emissions based on the assessment results, and will work with dairy farms to determine their potentials in low‑carbon productions and to test those measures.

The next step of the project will focus on nutrient cycling and water footprint. The outcomes are expected to complete the environmental assessment system for dairy farms, and provide theoretical basis for improvement of productivity, environmental conditions, and recycling of wastes. Eventually, it will contribute to cut off the emissions of greenhouse gases and promote green production of high-quality dairy products. 

Dr. Haopeng Jiao, General Manager of New Hope Farming, mentioned in his comment that carbon emissions have long been an important topic in the development of dairy industry. Europe launched milk quotas in 1984; although the quotas were lifted on April 1, 2015, in an effort to further free the milk production in Europe, the quota system demonstrated the European governments’ acknowledgement of the importance of limiting carbon emissions from dairy farming and production of dairy products.

Dr. Jiao illustrated the importance of reducing carbon footprint to China’s development with a few groups of data. The first group of data shows that ruminants produced most of the greenhouse gas emissions of animal farming. The total annual greenhouse gas emissions are about 10 billion tons of CO2-eq in China, 0.31 billion tons of which being generated by ruminants, an amount equal to the total emissions of 0.11 billion cars. The second group of data reveals that the energy needed to generate 1kg of methane is equal to that of producing 17.7kg of milk. Assume that the milk yield is 35kg per cow per day, then the energy wasted by a cow through methane emission in 3 days is the same as producing half of her daily yield. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a cow spends 6.5% of her daily energy input generating greenhouse gases.

Dr. Jiao also shared his suggestions on reducing emissions. Every aspect of dairy farming can influence the carbon neutralization. Firstly, breeding, feeding management, nutrition management, animal welfare and health management, and many other skills can improve feed conversion ratio and animal productivity. Secondly, digital devices and smart systems can be used to effectively monitor and control the production, and thus boost the productivity. The third aspect is the personnel of the farms. Although automation and smart technologies are increasingly applied to modern farms, most work in dairy farms still rely on human operation. Only well-trained personnel can bring about efficient management and precise investment. Dr. Jiao argues that improvements in all those aspects will make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As Dr. Corina van Middelaar suggested, fostering eco-responsible consumption habits and evaluating the returns of investment of resources, are also essential to low-carbon dairy farming. Other countries’ experiences can be good reference for China’s dairy industry, but we have to consider the realities in domestic market and build a model that meets our own demands for low-carbon development. 

Professor Tiny van Boekel, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Wageningen University and Research Institute, Chair of Advisory Committee of SDDDC, also joined the online discussions.

As Professor Shengli Li said, there are great potentials for emission reduction in China’s dairy industry. Low-carbon dairy farming is the inevitable, promising future of the industry. This enlightening online forum SDDDC held would certainly encourage the industry to consider how to take actions to meet the demands of the time and the country, and to contribute to a low‑carbon future.

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