The Planet Cannot Support China's Growing Demand for Milk

china milk supermarket
A photo taken on January 13, 2012, shows milk products on display at a supermarket in Chengdu, China. Despite a major scandal in 2008, China's demand for milk is surging as people grow wealthier. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

China is drinking more milk—and the consequences for the climate could be "unthinkable," as one scientist put it.

The country is expected to triple its milk consumption by 2050—which means it will need a lot more cows eating a lot more food grown on a lot more land. In February, an international team of researchers published their analysis of just how that spike might affect the environment in Global Change Biology.

People in China didn't use to drink a ton of milk. But the country has changed, increasing the amount of milk that's drunk by 25-fold in the past 25 years and becoming the country with the fourth largest contribution to the global supply. Despite all that, it's still one of the world's most "milk-deficient countries," according to a report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

While producing more milk in China—avoiding any environmental costs associated with transport—might seem like a simple solution, that would actually come with a significant environmental cost. If China produced 75 percent of the milk it might need in 2050 within its own borders, the amount of land around the world needed to produce food for those animals would increase by about 30 percent, according to the study. Global greenhouse gas emissions would increase by about that proportion, too. (Frankly, though, the numbers aren't much better if China imports all that milk, either.)

"These scenarios are unrealistic," Gerard Velthof, a researcher at Wageningen Environmental Research, said. "If you want to limit the effects of increased dairy production on the environment and land use as much as possible, you will need to increase the efficiency of milk production in China to the level of world leaders like the Netherlands." Improving the way the country manages grassland would be one possible step, Velthof suggested.

One of Velthof's collaborators, Zhaohai Bai, put things a bit more starkly. "The consequences of sticking to a 'business-as-usual' scenario are unthinkable," he stated.