Knowledge for better food systems

Potential public health impacts of the global dairy sector

This paper gives an overview of the potential public health impacts of dairy production and consumption across the globe. It notes that dairy production is projected to increase by a quarter between 2014 and 2025, driven by both a rising global population and increases in the amount of dairy consumed per person.

Impacts and benefits noted by the study include:

Occupational risks for dairy farmers, such as:

  • Exposure to zoonotic diseases
  • Exposure to antibiotic-resistant microbes
  • Exposure to bioaerosols (particles of organic dust), which can cause respiratory disease
  • Decreased risk of asthma for children raised on farms
  • Exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals
  • Risk of injuries from moving heavy machinery or handling livestock

Environmental health impacts, such as:

  • Air pollution from dairy production, such as particulates, nitrogen oxides and ammonia
  • Water pollution from animal waste, traces of antibiotics and hormones, fertilisers for growing feed crops, and sediment from eroded pasture
  • Contribution to water scarcity through using water to wash animals, clean equipment or irrigate feed crops
  • Pathogens from manure contaminating waterways

Ecosystem health impacts, such as:

  • Loss of ecosystems services, e.g. through runoff from dairy farms harming fisheries
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from enteric fermentation, manure management and fertiliser production
  • Threats to biodiversity from both intensive and extensive dairy production systems, e.g. desertification or forest fragmentation.
  • Soil degradation or improved soil health, depending on the livestock management regime.

Food safety hazards, such as:

  • Biological contaminants in both raw and pasteurised dairy products.
  • Chemical contaminants, e.g. mycotoxins produced by certain fungi that can contaminate feed and be passed on through milk.

Dietary benefits and harms, such as:

  • Moderate dairy consumption is thought to protect against cardiovascular disease.
  • Mixed evidence on the impacts of hormones in dairy on cancer risk.

Economic, social and cultural impacts, such as:

  • Provision of livelihoods and food security in some lower-income regions, particularly for women.
  • Trends towards large, intensive dairy farms with limited provision of livelihoods in higher-income regions.

 

Abstract

Strong demand for dairy products has led to a global increase in dairy production. In many parts of the world, dairy systems are undergoing rapid intensification. While increased production may contribute to food security, higher dairy stocking rates in some regions have resulted in increased pressure on natural resources with the potential to affect public health and wellbeing. The aim of this review was to identify and describe the potential health harms and benefits associated with dairy production and consumption. Electronic databases Medline, Embase, Scopus, Web of Science, PubMed, and Google Scholar were searched for published literature that investigated human health impacts of dairy production and consumption. Occupational hazards, environmental health impacts, ecosystem health impacts, foodborne hazards, and diet‐related chronic diseases were identified as potential public health hazards. Some impacts, notably climate change, extend beyond directly exposed populations. Dairy production and consumption are also associated with important health benefits through the provision of nutrients and economic opportunities. As the global dairy sector increases production, exposure to a range of hazards must be weighed with these benefits. The review of impacts presented here can provide an input into decision making about optimal levels of dairy production and consumption, local land use, and identification and management of specific hazards from this sector. Future research should consider multiple exposure routes, socioeconomic implications, and environmental factors, particularly in regions heavily dependent on dairy farming.

 

Reference

Grout, L., Baker, M.G., French, N. and Hales, S., 2020. A Review of Potential Public Health Impacts Associated with the Global Dairy Sector. GeoHealth, 4(2), p.e2019GH000213.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource What are the nutritional issues around meat and dairy?

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