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Global environmental costs of China’s thirst for milk

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-03, 12:33 authored by Zhaohai Bai, Michael R.F. Lee, Lin Ma, Stewart LedgardStewart Ledgard, Oene Oenema, Gerard Velthof, Wenqi Ma, Mengchu Guo, Zhanqing Zhao, Sha Wei, Shengli Li, Xia Liu, Petr Havlik, Jiafa LuoJiafa Luo, Chunsheng Hu, Fusuo Zhang
China has an ever-increasing thirst for milk, with a predicted 3.2-fold increase in demand by 2050 compared to the production level in 2010. What are the environmental implications of meeting this demand, and what is the preferred pathway? We addressed these questions by using a nexus approach, to examine the interdependencies of increasing milk consumption in China by 2050 and its global impacts, under different scenarios of domestic milk production and importation. Meeting China's milk demand in a business as usual scenario will increase global dairy-related (China and the leading milk exporting regions) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 35% (from 565 to 764 Tg CO2eq) and land use for dairy feed production by 32% (from 84 to 111 million ha) compared to 2010, while reactive nitrogen losses from the dairy sector will increase by 48% (from 3.6 to 5.4 Tg nitrogen). Producing all additional milk in China with current technology will greatly increase animal feed import; from 1.9 to 8.5 Tg for concentrates and from 1.0 to 6.2 Tg for forage (alfalfa). In addition, it will increase domestic dairy related GHG emissions by 2.2 times compared to 2010 levels. Importing the extra milk will transfer the environmental burden from China to milk exporting countries; current dairy exporting countries may be unable to produce all additional milk due to physical limitations or environmental preferences/legislation. For example, the farmland area for cattle-feed production in New Zealand would have to increase by more than 57% (1.3 million ha) and that in Europe by more than 39% (15 million ha), while GHG emissions and nitrogen losses would increase roughly proportionally with the increase of farmland in both regions. We propose that a more sustainable dairy future will rely on high milk demanding regions (such as China) improving their domestic milk and feed production efficiencies up to the level of leading milk producing countries. This will decrease the global dairy related GHG emissions and land use by 12% (90 Tg CO2eq reduction) and 30% (34 million ha land reduction) compared to the business as usual scenario, respectively. However, this still represents an increase in total GHG emissions of 19% whereas land use will decrease by 8% when compared with 2010 levels, respectively.


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© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • English

Does this contain Māori information or data?

  • No



Journal title

Global Change Biology




Bai, Z., Lee, M. R. F., Ma, L., Ledgard, S., Oenema, O., Velthof, G. L., … Zhang, F. (2018). Global environmental costs of China’s thirst for milk. Global Change Biology, 24(5), 2198-2211. doi:10.1111/gcb.14047

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