According to the US Department of Agriculture, cheese consumption has steadily risen since 1975.
In 2019, around 15.5 pounds per capita of American-type cheese was consumed, compared to 22.8 pounds per capita of non-American cheese. In 1975, the amount of cheese consumed was noted at only 8.1 pounds per capita (American) and 6.1 pounds per capita (non-America).
So how bad is cheese for the environment?
That isn’t to say that you should cut out cheese though. By buying certified organic cheese or cutting down your cheese consumption you can help reduce its emissions.
Is cheese bad for the environment?
In 2011, the Environmental Working Group put together A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, which provided information on the environmental and health impact of protein.
The research includes lifecycle assessments and the impact of various meat, egg, and dairy products.
They found that cheese contributed enough greenhouse gas emissions to place third out of twenty products, placing after lamb and beef. Per kilogram of cheese consumed, 13.5 kg of carbon dioxide emissions is produced, compared to 27.0 kg from beef and 39.2 kg from lamb.
While cheese produces only half as much carbon dioxide as beef, it’s a great deal higher than the measly 1.9 kg of carbon dioxide that 2% milk produces.
Though cheese contributed smaller amounts of emissions after leaving the farm, the production emissions alone put cheese above pork.
Much of their production emissions could be attributed to the methane released by the animals they come from. So cheese that uses less milk, like cottage cheese, was noted to be better based on greenhouse emissions.
The production emissions for wasted cheese that has already been processed are also third on a table of nine food products, again behind lamb and beef.
It usually takes around 10 liters of milk to create 1 kilogram of cheese. One dairy cow can produce up to 28 liters of milk a day, though this is unsustainable and often comes with greater risk to the cow, whether for their health or for how they are treated by the farmer.
A UK farmer in 2016 revealed that his cows were milked only once a day but still produced 1 million liters of milk a year while pasture-fed. This more sustainable approach is sadly not shared by many in the dairy industry.
It’s important to note as well that cheese can be made from various milk products, not just cows. Goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, camels, donkeys, moose, reindeer, and even horses can be milked to create cheese.
Cheese imported by air freight has a 46% larger carbon footprint than local cheese. It is usually imported by boats or planes, the latter of which has an even bigger footprint.
Which cheese is best for the environment?
The Environmental Working Group identified cheese with less milk as better for the environment. Low-fat or reduced-fat cheese is made with 2% or semi-skimmed milk.
Switching to low-fat cheese is better for your health and can make a dent in the environmental impact of cheese.
There are a few guidelines you can follow with most animal products to pick the least environmentally damaging cheese:
Organic cheese is produced by organic farms that avoid synthetic substances like pesticide-treated pastures, processed feed, and medicines not needed for them (such as hormones or antibiotics). Organic produce typically has more nutrients and the farm animals are treated better and allowed to graze or eat their natural vegetation.
Where possible, it’s always better to buy local and support farmers in your area. The main eco-friendly advantage of buying local is cutting down on transportation emissions.
Local doesn’t just mean in your area though – you can apply this to a wider area, such as your state or country. Overseas produce is usually cheaper because corners are cut or workers are not treated fairly. Buying local produce often goes alongside buying from small, independent businesses
Vegan cheese uses plants to create cheese. The ingredients usually involve nuts, soy milk, seeds, root vegetables, and other plant foods. You can even make your own!
Is vegan cheese eco-friendly?
Vegan cheese has its own, smaller environmental impact, but when comparing it to traditional animal-based cheese it’s absolutely eco-friendly.
We can look back to the Environmental Working Group’s emissions table to figure out if vegan cheese is more eco-friendly in emissions.
Away from dairy cheese’s third place on the table, we can see nuts and tofu, two popular vegan ingredients which can be used to make cheese. Nuts place behind peanut butter with 2.3 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram consumed, almost six times less than cheese, while tofu releases 2.0 kg of emissions per kilogram.
By making your own vegan cheese you can have even more control over its environmental impact by prioritizing local, organic ingredients and reducing transportation emissions. The big bonus is in trying different recipes until you find what’s perfect for you!
Here are some vegan cheese recipes to try for yourself:
- Tofu ricotta cheese from Sweet Simple Vegan
- Nut-free, gluten-free cheese sauce from A Virtual Vegan
- Cashew cheese from The Full Helping
- Sliceable vegan cheese from Bianca Zapatka
- Vegan mac and cheese from Crowded Kitchen
Ethical Consumer ranked 19 vegan cheese brands to choose from if you’re not able to make your own.
They recommend checking if a product is organic, fair trade, and packaged in recyclable materials to cut down the environmental impact of the cheese. Check for local vegan small businesses before delving into the supermarket’s shelves too!
Why is organic cheese better for the environment?
Organic foods typically have more health and environmental benefits. Because organic cheese uses only natural ingredients it’s also safe for vegetarians!
Organic dairy farmers care more about their animals, ensuring they are treated humanely and produce a natural amount of milk. By feeding the animals with natural food, such as letting them graze, the animals benefit more and this also gives their milk (and thus their cheese) more nutrients.
Grazing also has benefits for the environment.
With properly managed or ‘responsible grazing’, topsoil can be restored and regain fertility, the biodiversity of an ecosystem can recover and improve, more nutritious food can be produced, and reliance on synthetic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers can be reduced. It can even lead to farming becoming carbon-neutral.
A five-year study into soil sequestration found that carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in soil using responsible grazing. Their research “indicates that [adaptive multi-paddock grazing] grazing has the potential to offset [greenhouse gras] emissions through soil [carbon] sequestration”.
Adaptive multi-paddock grazing is a form of responsible grazing that involves rotational grazing, allowing rest periods between grazing.
A second study into soil sequestration using adaptive multi-paddock grazing also found that greenhouse gases can be offset with this method.