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Environmental consequences of an expanding and westernizing dairy sector in China

By Laura Moria


During the last decades, dramatic changes in traditional Chinese diets are observed. This so-called westernization of diets, among others, depicts a shift towards the consumption of more dairy. Per caput consumption and production of dairy in China tripled during the last decade. Cow milk production also exploded, allowing China to become the third largest milk producer in the world. Concern about the environmental consequences of dairy production is also growing. Several studies indicate that the present dairy production might exacerbate many environmental problems. Livestock has been recognized to be one of the most important causes of methane emissions, a major Green House Gas. The environmental burdens which might be opposed by the growing dairy sector in China have never been studied. This study therefore provides an overview of the environmental consequences of an expanding and westernizing dairy sector in China. Chinas dairy consumption system and dairy production systems are studied extensively and then linked with the formula; Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology, to define the environmental consequences of an expanded and westernized dairy sector. The population and affluence in this formula are represented by several consumption scenarios and the technology corresponds with a definition of dairy production systems, representing Chinese production systems, and their related environmental impacts. Population and income growth are expected to further encourage this rising consumption of dairy in China. It is not likely that China’s dietary habits and prevailing lactose intolerance will significantly hamper this consumption growth. Dietary habits have proven to be variable in China and studies have indicated that Chinese might adapt to dietary lactose. Moreover, lactose intolerant people can consume many dairy products without nuisance. China can be expected to suffer similar changes in dairy consumption as Japan, given that they share several cultural, agricultural and dietary practices. China’s high meat consumption, might be an indication for an even higher possible dairy consumption. The ability of China to substantially increase its dairy production and transport infrastructure, poses a potential constraint for the consumption growth. A highly extensive system, presents a close representation of the current area related production intensity, milk yield per cow and low input levels of Chinese production systems. An intensive systems might be necessary to keep up with the growing milk demand, since extensive systems pose a much higher claim on land and water resources. The quantified environmental consequences of several consumption scenarios combined with these extensive and intensive dairy production systems show that differences in production systems largely influence resource use and emissions. More intensive systems result in a higher use of energy resources and emit more greenhouse gases, ammonia, nitrate and phosphate, but claim less land and water. It should be discussed that only one food item in the changing Chinese diet is studied here. Although dairy production results in large environmental consequences, compared to other food items, other food items might be of importance as well. Particularly rice might be of importance, since the production of rice contributes considerably to GWP. The decline in rice consumption might not lead to a similar decline in rice production though, since rice is used as an animal feed source in China. Although the Western production systems, which represent Chinese production systems in this study, are chosen as such that a full range in production intensity is represented, actual Chinese production systems might still differ. Differences exist in country specific, environmental characteristics and management characteristics of the agricultural system. Deviations in management characteristics, mainly exist because Chinas production systems are not as tightly bound by environmental legislation as Western production systems, which might result in an underestimation of environmental consequences. Environmental parameters, like soil texture and climate, greatly influence nutrient leaching rates and NH3 volatilization. As mentioned above, a Japanese consumption pattern and a extrapolation of the current consumption growth up to 2015 represent realistic consumption patterns in China. An even further increase seems unlikely, since this will probably exceed the available land, water and animal resources. The enormous claim of extensive systems on land and water resources confirms that an intensification of production systems will be necessary in China to provide sufficient milk for these realistic increased consumption patterns in China. This increased dairy consumption significantly burdens practically all aspects of the environment, varying from emissions of greenhouse gases to depletion of China’s scarce water resources. The environmental burdens opposed by an expanded dairy consumption are also generally visible on world scale, resulting in 1 to 2 percent of world resource availability, resource use and emissions.

Year: 2009
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