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Cheesed Off

Can cheese be made sustainably?

A recent Environmental Working Group and CleanMetrics study found that that cheese is among the top three worst protein sources in terms of negative environmental impacts (lamb was first, beef second).

One of the biggest problems associated with food production is that farming, processing, packaging, and transporting food products generates greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to global warming.

In the case of cheese, the majority of GHG emissions occur during milk production. Dairy farmers can reduce GHG emissions by making cheese from cow’s or goat’s milk rather than sheep’s milk (sheep produce more methane per milk unit).

They can do this by changing the type of feed they give their animals, better managing fertilizer to prevent run-off, using manure methane to make biogas, and making their operations more efficient overall.

Consumers can reduce environmental harm by purchasing cheese made with milk from organic or grass-fed cows or goats.

Manufacturing and packaging cheeses also contributes to GHG emissions. These operations can be made more environmentally friendly by creating cheeses that require less processing and making additional products such as butter at the same time. Consumers can reduce environmental impacts at this stage by choosing cheeses with less packaging and by selecting less processed cheeses.

Younger cheeses which don’t need to be maintained at a cool temperature during a long aging process, are typically a better environmental choice, though in Europe, some older cheeses are aged in cool underground caves, which significantly reduces their environmental impacts. Soft cheeses also tend to be more environmentally friendly than hard cheeses, which require more aging, longer cooking times, and higher cooking temperatures (though a cheese plant that uses highly efficient practices can significantly reduce its negative impacts even when making harder cheeses). Some of the cheese options that tend to be the greenest include brie, chèvre, camembert, cottage cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella.

A third source of environmental impact is transportation, which can be mitigated by purchasing local cheeses. In addition, consumers can reduce cheese’s negative impacts simply by not wasting it. Purchasing only what you need so that you can use it up before it goes off is one of the easiest ways to reduce GHG emissions.

Hamershlag, K., Environmental Working Group, What You Eat Matters, 2011.
Hymas, L., “Is Your Cheese Killing the Planet?Grist, 8 August 2011.
Rastogi, N., “Soft Cheese for a Cleaner Planet,” Slate, 15 December 2009.
University of Wisconsin-Extension, Understand the Carbon Footprint of Cheese, 2011.

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