How to eat less dairy products: especially cheeses and butter

Consumption of dairy products is large in most developed countries and is increasing rapidly in low and middle-income countries. Milk production has been estimated to contribute 3-4% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Dairy is one of Australia’s most important rural industries. It is the fourth-largest rural industry in the country. The majority of milk production occurs on the southeast seaboard in Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania. 

The carbon footprint associated with raw milk can vary, depending on many factors, such as animal species (cow, buffalo, sheep or goat), production system, type of cheese and geographical area. Among dairy products, cheese and butter have been reported to have one of the highest environmental impacts.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions are on-farm emissions, enteric fermentation (methane) and the production of feed. This means that the emissions attributable to a dairy product depend on the amount of milk required to make that product. When milk gets processed into cheese, butter, cream, or yoghurt, we are putting in even more energy – and more emissions – to create a smaller volume of food. Usually, it takes about 10 litres of milk to make one kilogram of cheese, which may vary.

The carbon footprint of cheese varies, according to the latest study from Poore and Nemecek, the median emissions for cheese are 21 kg of CO2-eq per kg cheese. We attached a comparison table in the references below.

What about milk? Which milk has the smallest impact on the environment?

Oat, rice, soy, hemp, almond, coconut, there are many alternatives. A glass of dairy milk produces almost three times more greenhouse gas than any plant-based milk.

Cow milk has a much higher global warming potential (GWP) compared to plant-based milk. However, the emissions vary, Australian milk has a carbon footprint of approximately 1.14 kg CO2-eq and Africa 2.50 kg CO2-eq. But there are some other factors that are worth looking at, dairy requires nine times more land than any plant-based milk. Water use is also higher for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water for every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk.

We recommend oat milk due to its lower environmental impacts. One glass of dairy milk produces more than three times the carbon emissions of one glass of oat milk and requires 10 times more land.

You should choose the plant-based milk which you are most comfortable with, as any will have a lower impact on the environment compared to dairy milk.

Eat less cheese

Here are some tips on how you can reduce your cheese intake.

Use cheese as a seasoning: Although Parmesan has one of the highest impacts per kilogram, we really don’t need much of it at a time, which makes it a relatively carbon-efficient way to add flavour to a pasta dish.

Use smaller amounts in your meals: It’s pretty easy to half your cheese portions, especially if you opt-in for cheeses with a stronger taste.

Replace cheese with vegan alternatives: there are many dairy-free alternatives available, many are nut-based and have a similar texture and taste. However, try to avoid highly processed products, which can be loaded with sodium, oil, and preservatives.

Butter alternatives

Margarine has a considerably lower environmental impact (less than half) compared to butter. But there are other alternatives to butter such as coconut oil, avocado or nut butter.

For baking:

Coconut oil can replace butter in baking at a 1:1 ratio, however, it can slightly change the flavour.

Olive oil can be a substitute for butter at a 3:4 ratio by volume. Since olive oil is a liquid, it won’t work in recipes that need the fat to remain solid.

Applesauce substitutes at a 1:1 ratio but can add sweetness to your recipe.

Avocado is a great replacement for butter at a 1:1 ratio but might change the colour of your dish.

Mashed banana can be added at a 1:1 ratio.

Butter as a spread:

Olive oil, mix your olive oil with some of your favourite herbs or spices, garlic or chilly is also a popular option to add more flavour.

Nut butters are a great substitute. 

Mashed avocado, spread lightly on your toast or bread.

Hummus is great as a spread or for dipping.

What else can you do to eat low emission foods?


Alves et al. (2019). Strategies for reducing the environmental impacts of organic mozzarella cheese production.

Australian Government.

Basset-Mens, McLaren & Ledgard (2007). Exploring a comparative advantage for New Zealand cheese in terms of environmental performance.

Bava et al. (2018). Impact assessment of traditional food manufacturing: The case of Grana Padano cheese.

Berlese, Corazzin & Bovolenta (2019). Environmental sustainability assessment of buffalo mozzarella cheese production chain: A scenario analysis.

Canellada et al. (2018). Environmental impact of cheese production: A case study of a small-scale factory in southern Europe and global overview of carbon footprint.

Clune, S. (2019). Chapter 9 – Calculating GHG impacts of meals and menus using streamlined LCA data.

Clune et al. (2017). Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories.

Dalla Riva et al. (2017). Environmental life cycle assessment of Italian mozzarella cheese: hotspots and improvement opportunities.

Dairy Australia (2020). Australian Dairy IndustrySustainability Report 2019.

Dairy Australia.

Drew et al. (2020). Healthy and Climate-Friendly Eating Patterns in the New Zealand Context.

Famiglietti et al. (2019). Development and testing of the Product Environmental Footprint Milk Tool: A comprehensive LCA tool for dairy products.

Hadjikakou, M. (2017). Trimming the excess: environmental impacts of discretionary food consumption in Australia.

Gosalvitr et al. (2019). Energy demand and carbon footprint of cheddar cheese with energy recovery from cheese whey.

Kim et at. (2013). Life cycle assessment of cheese and whey production in the USA.

Laca et al. (2020). Overview on GHG emissions of raw milk production and a comparison of milk and cheese carbon footprints of two different systems from northern Spain.

Mondello et al. (2018). Environmental hot-spots and improvement scenarios for Tuscan “Pecorino” cheese using Life Cycle Assessment.

Nunes et al. (2020). Life-Cycle Assessment of Dairy Products—CaseStudy of Regional Cheese Produced in Portugal.

Opio et al. (2013). Greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant supply chains – A global life cycle assessment. FAO.

Poore & Nemecek (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.

Santos Jr. et al. (2017). Life cycle assessment of cheese production process in a small-sized dairy industry in Brazil.

Trade Map.

Vagnoni et al. (2017). Environmental profile of Sardinian sheep milk cheese supply chain: A comparison between two contrasting dairy systems.



Cheese type

GWP (average)

Laca et al. (2020)


Artisanal (semi-confinement system)

16.6 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Laca et al. (2020)


Artisanal (pasture-based system)

14.7 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Nunes et al. (2020)


Beira Baixa

14.9 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Drew et al. (2020)

New Zealand

Not applicable

10 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Gosalvitr et al. (2019)



14 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Alves et al. (2019)


Buffalo Mozzarella (organic system)

8.17 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Berlese, Corazzin & Bovolenta (2019)


Buffalo Mozzarella

33.9 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Poore & Nemecek (2018)


Not applicable

21 kg of CO2-eq/kg 

Bava et al. (2018)


Grana Padano

10.3 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Canellada et al. (2018)



10.2 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Mondello et a. (2018)


Sheep Pecorino

22.1 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Hadjikakou, M. (2017)


Not applicable

5.7 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Vagnoni et al. (2017)


Sheep Pecorino

17 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Santos Jr. et al. (2017)


Industrial cheese

14.4 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Dalla Riva et al. (2017)


Cow Mozzarella

6.6 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Clune et al. (2017)


Not applicable

8.5 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Kim et al. (2013)



8.6 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Kim et al. (2013)


Cow Mozzarella

7.3 kg of CO2-eq/kg

Basset-Mens, McLaren & Ledgard (2007)

New Zealand

Not applicable

10 kg of CO2-eq/kg


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