Dairy Farmers of Canada are committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from farm-level dairy production by the year 2050. There are also targets related to soil and land, water, biodiversity, waste and energy.
Dairy’s carbon footprint in context
Farmers are citizens of this planet too, and we all have a role to play in combatting climate change. Just like their parents and grandparents, today’s farmers have a vested interest in preserving the resources for future generations because most dairy farms are passed down from one generation to the next. Farmers have a real interest in sustaining their land and the product they sell for the long run.
What’s more, farmers are seeing the impacts of climate change first-hand. From droughts and floods to wildfires and storms, extreme weather is having a real impact at the farm-level. There are many ways farmers can help the environment that are good for business, good for the animals and good for the planet.
Thanks to Canadian dairy farmers’ continual efficiency and innovation, the dairy industry's carbon footprint is small and decreasing. Today, dairy production in Canada represents around 1% of our country's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – and this figure represents all aspects of dairy farming, including crop production and transportation to processing plants. To put that number in context, all agricultural activity in Canada – most of which is crop production – makes up about 8% of Canada's emissions. Compare this with sectors like transportation, power generation, and industrial activity, which combined account for nearly 90% of Canada's carbon footprint. ¹
Reducing our carbon footprint
The Canadian dairy farming sector already has one of the lowest environmental footprints in the world. Between 1990 and 2019, the carbon footprint of milk produced in Canada decreased by 24 percent on a per-litre basis, according to government data. Today, that carbon footprint for each litre produced is less than half the global average for dairy production.
Emissions related to the production of one litre of Canadian milk are less than half the global average footprint of a litre of milk. In fact, our emissions from milk production are among the lowest in the world, similar or lower than producing milk in countries like the U.S., France, and New Zealand. ²
We’re committed to building on this progress, for the future of our farms and the health of our planet.
What 'net-zero emissions' really means
Net-zero emissions means achieving an overall balance between the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change (including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) and GHG removals. The idea is to reduce emissions at the farm level as much as possible and offset the remainder with carbon sinks or credits, bringing total emissions to net zero.
How Canadian dairy farmers will reach net-zero emissions
The Canadian dairy farming sector will reach net-zero through a combination of emissions reduction and carbon removals, commonly referred to as carbon sequestration. Sequestration activities such as crop and tree planting help to capture carbon from the atmosphere and bring it back into the soil or plants, even turning some of it into food. The balance between emissions and removals will bring the balance to zero.
Consultations with environmental experts show this goal is realistic and achievable. The progress we have made on sustainability thus far has put our target within reach. Many farms in Canada have already reduced emissions through the adoption of various technologies and best management practices that make farming more efficient. Some farms have even adopted technologies to prevent emissions by converting them into renewable energy, while others have adopted wind or solar power. Reducing or eliminating tilling where possible also contributes to keeping carbon in the soil instead of in the air.
Farmers will be encouraged and incentivized to further reduce emissions, choose lower-carbon options for energy and/or sequester carbon in the soil. For instance, training opportunities can be provided, and funding opportunities and programs from governments and other stakeholders can be leveraged to support such initiatives.
There are many actions that can be taken – and in many cases, are already being taken – on the farm to reduce, capture and offset GHG emissions. A variety of tools to accurately measure, monitor, report and verify emissions reductions already exist or are in development, and new technologies tend to become more accessible over time, increasing the potential for adoption.
Laying the roadmap
DFC is committed to deliver a roadmap to net-zero emissions. Farmers are already contributing via the Environment module of proAction. DFC will ensure the efforts on that module can be recognized and reported on as part of this sustainability strategy.
DFC will work to encourage the adoption of effective and impactful best management practices to reduce emissions on farms. A range of tools and resources will be developed to help farmers implement the best management practices most suited to their operations. To help get us there, a Farmer Sustainability Advisory Group has been formed with representation from across the country.
Various emissions-reduction initiatives and government programs will be leveraged to increase adoption rates on farms. DFC will also lean on partnerships with other like-minded organizations to help drive uptake – organizations like Cleanfarms, Tree Canada, and Ducks Unlimited Canada can make it easier to recycle plastic, protect waterways, and promote biodiversity.
Other emissions reduction initiatives
The Canadian dairy sector’s investments in research are driving meaningful progress and are helping to put our Net-Zero 2050 goal within reach. Examples include:
Biodigesters: Emissions from manure can be reduced through a process called anaerobic digestion, with the added benefit of producing a form of green fertilizer and renewable energy. A typical farm’s biodigester can produce enough electricity for 11 houses!
Carbon Sequestration: Canadian farms, with their millions of acres of crops, grasses, and woodlands, are part of the climate solution, as they actively sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, where it's converted back into natural resources and food that humans and cows consume.
Improved Animal Nutrition: By improving cow diets, we can reduce the methane emissions they give off. Research is already underway into new feeding strategies.
Breeding Strategies: Selectively breeding cows who process feed more efficiently.
Renewable Energy: In addition to anaerobic digestors, many farmers are installing solar panels or wind turbines on their land (where weather conditions permit).
Water Conservation: Canadian dairy farmers have reduced the amount of water needed to produce a kilogram of milk by 6% in recent years.
Manure Management: Dairy farms have an abundant source of natural fertilizer in cow manure. Farmers carefully manage manure and test soils to make the best use of it in their fields. Cow manure favours microbial activity in the soil and reduces the need for petroleum-based fertilizers. Other practices, such as fully emptying manure storage and covering liquid manure with straw, can also significantly reduce methane emissions. ³
Tillage: Many farms have adopted reduced or no tillage practices, such as leaving stubs and roots of a previous year’s crop in the soil, capturing more carbon in the ground and reducing topsoil erosion.
Crop Rotations: Diverse and strategic crop rotations lead to better soil health, meaning the soil retains more water (requiring less irrigation), more nutrients (requiring less fertilizer), and more carbon (reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere).
Cover crops: Many farmers also plant a secondary crop in their fields to help minimize potential soil erosion, increase fertility and moisture, and control against weeds, pests, and diseases – all while supporting biodiversity.
The role of supply management in sustainability
Sustainability won’t have to come at the expense of a farmer’s economic standing or the price of milk for consumers. Under supply management, dairy farmers work collectively to align production to meet the needs of the Canadian market. The system was invented in Canada in the 1960s following a period of market volatility as a way to ensure a fair return for farmers and to meet domestic demand. Being efficient like this is important because it creates a sustainable industry – something that is a priority for consumers and farmers alike.
(1) Environment and Climate Change Canada. Greenhouse gas sources and sinks: executive summary 2021. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/climate-change/greenhouse-gas-emissions/sources-sinks-executive-summary-2021.html
(2) FAO (2019). Climate change and the global dairy cattle sector. available at: http://www.fao.org/3/CA2929EN/ca2929en.pdf