New Zealand milk production is almost 40% more carbon-efficient than milk produced in Ireland, according to a new study by New Zealand researchers.
The study, which was produced by the AgResearch institute and commissioned by industry body Dairy NZ, found that the carbon footprint of New Zealand milk stood at just 0.74kg of C02 for every kg of milk produced (FPCM – fat and protein corrected milk).
This means New Zealand dairy farmers have by far the lowest carbon footprint in the world and have almost half the carbon footprint of the average dairy farmer in other countries.
By comparison, the carbon footprint of Irish milk stands at 1.18kg of C02 for every kg of milk produced (FPCM), meaning milk produced in New Zealand is 37% more carbon-efficient than here in Ireland.
Better than average
The carbon footprint of Irish milk is 16% better than the global average of countries included in the study. Irish milk is found to be 74% more carbon-efficient than milk produced in India, 42% more carbon-efficient than Chinese milk and even 30% more carbon-efficient than German milk production.
However, the study also shows that milk produced in Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Australia, France and the US has a lower carbon footprint when compared by way of fat and protein corrected milk.
It should be noted that the figures used in the study for Portugal are taken from a very small study of 25 dairy farms located in the Azores, a group of islands situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Similarly, the data used for the carbon efficiency of Danish milk production is based on a significant number of organic dairy farms as well as conventional farms.
About the study
Commissioned by Dairy NZ, this latest study on carbon efficiency in dairy farming was independently produced by AgResearch and peer-reviewed by an international specialist in Ireland.
The research analysed 55% of global milk production, including major milk producing countries like the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and China.
Dr Andre Mazzetto, a scientist with AgResearch, said Ireland was one of a number of other countries, including New Zealand, Uruguay and Australia, which is well known for high quality milk production on a low intensity but efficient grass-based system.
He said this meant Irish milk had much lower associated methane emissions than other countries, with methane (CH4) representing 65% to 75% of the carbon footprint of Irish milk.
In contrast, countries like the US, France, the Netherlands and Sweden where the indoor system is preferred have a lower percentage of associated methane emissions with their milk but have significantly higher emissions of C02 and nitrous oxide (N20).
This latest figure for the carbon footprint of New Zealand milk is incredibly impressive. For instance, Irish dairy co-op Dairygold is hoping to help its milk suppliers reduce their carbon footprint to 0.7kg of C02 per kg of milk by 2030 – almost a decade away.
However, there are some important reasons for the major gap between Ireland and New Zealand in terms of the carbon efficiency of milk production.
Firstly, the genetic profile of the New Zealand dairy herd is more weighted towards higher solids in milk, which is a key influencer for this study. The higher the level of solids in the milk, the more carbon efficient it is.
The milk solids profile of Irish milk has improved dramatically over the last 20 years but we still have a way to go to catch up on our New Zealand counterparts.
Secondly, and most importantly, this study does not take into account the environmental impact of the extra intensity of New Zealand dairy farming. By focusing on a single measure (carbon efficiency), New Zealand dairy farming looks miles ahead of every other country.
However, the unregulated nature of farming in New Zealand has allowed Kiwi dairy farmers to push the limits of what’s possible in terms of efficiency and production levels of a grass-based dairy farming system.
This has allowed New Zealand dairy farmers to become the most carbon efficient in the world but it has come at the cost of environmental standards over recent decades.
In contrast, European dairy farmers have lived with strict environmental regulations for many years as members of the EU. Irish dairy farmers have to contend with strict rules around nitrates, stocking rates, water quality and nutrient management, which limits the level of efficiency they can get to from a grass-based system.
So while this study shows a significant gap between the carbon efficiency of Irish milk and New Zealand milk, it’s important to remember that this is just one metric that does not take into account the more stringent environmental regulations farmers must abide by in Europe in order to protect our environment and water quality standards.