Aired On:
December 14, 2021

Industrial animal agriculture is fueling the climate crisis, with food and farming systems accounting for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And while big dairy operations are contributing to climate change, they are also impacting the health and economies of rural communities throughout the United States and globally.

And that is the model that Fair Trade USA has dubbed “fair trade dairy.”

In this episode, Shefali Sharma of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy joins us to discuss the role of Big Dairy in fueling the climate crisis and hollowing out rural communities. She explains the need for transparency and real policy solutions to address industrial agriculture’s emissions –and protect the planet for future generations.

Topics covered include:

  • How industrial animal agriculture is contributing to climate change.
  • How Big Meat and Dairy hide their climate impact behind a lack of transparency.
  • Manure lagoons, dead zones, and other environmental consequences for rural communities.
  • “Net Zero” and other tricky language Big Dairy corporations use to hide their real impact on the planet.
  • How environmental sustainability is a pillar of how fair trade farmer organizations represent their movement – and how it’s completely omitted from the new “fair trade dairy” label.
  • The disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on communities of color in the U.S. and globally.
  • Regulating emissions, reducing production, and other solutions to address industrial animal agriculture’s disproportionate impact on our planet.
  • Why worker-led solutions are a key component of climate justice.
  • False solutions to look out for in the news, and in the grocery store.

Do you work on a farm participating in the “Fair Trade Dairy” program? We want to hear your perspective. Send a message to [email protected] or call (800) 631-9980.


The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s report: Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy is heating up the planet and hollowing rural communities:

More on the petition to the Environmental Protection Agency calling for regulation of industrial dairy and hog farming, citing the disproportionate impacts of industrial animal agriculture on communities of color and rural communities:

More on false solutions to the problems of industrial dairy:

Impacts of the climate crisis on farmworkers and how organized workers are pushing for new heat protections under the law:

How worker-driven programs are able to respond nimbly to the challenges of a changing planet:

Dana Geffner:
Remember a few years ago when this happened?

News clip montage
“They’re trying to get rid of all the cows”

“I support cows”

“I’ve got 100 cows.”

“No more eggs, no cheese, no more steaks”

“No South Dakota milkshakes.”

“Cheeseburgers and milkshakes will become a thing of the past.”

“No more hamburgers.”

“We’re going to ban hamburgers?”

“They’re going to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a plan to address climate change and mentioned that cows – or rather industrial animal agriculture – were part of the problem. And while plenty of talk show hosts lost their cool at the notion, cow flatulence is actually an issue.

I’m your host, Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project. And this episode, we’re going to get into some of the nuance that got lost in that talk show mayhem – and meet some of the same players selling false solutions we’ve heard from so far this season.

The changing climate is rapidly turning into a climate crisis.
Emissions from industrial production, fossil fuels – and agriculture—enclose the earth, trapping the heat of the sun –that’s where that term “Greenhouse gases” comes from. And those trapped rays are turning up the heat on the planet, and causing runaway changes to the climate.

It’s not just hotter weather, but more drought in some places, ice melt, and sea levels rising in others. More violent and frequent storms, and tinder dry forests igniting into record fires.

And yes, factory farmed cows are part of the problem.

Ryan Zinn, Fair World Project’s Political Director, is going to speak to Shefali Sharma with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to break down how the industrial dairy system plays a significant role in climate change.

Before we get to their conversation, I asked Ryan to walk us through just what those greenhouse gases are, because it’s going to be critical to our story.

Ryan Zinn:
At least as it relates to agriculture and more broadly, there are three main gases that we think about when we think about climate change and greenhouse gases. The one that we most hear about is carbon dioxide and that’s sort of like the one we based everything else off, it’s kinda like the first child. All the other gasses are in fact, compared to carbon dioxide.

The other two that I think are really important to talk about is methane. Methane, kind of on a scale as compared to carbon dioxide is quite a bit more powerful. It’s got what they call a global warming potential, or basically the damage that it does, roughly between 20 to 40 times that of carbon dioxide.

But its impact is felt only for quite a shorter time period, up to about a hundred years, whereas carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a thousand years plus. And then the other one we think about when we think about agriculture at least, is nitrous oxide. And that one actually is far more dangerous and powerful than carbon dioxide, having a far greater impact, two to three hundred times that of carbon dioxide. But like methane it only lasts a shorter period of time as well. It’s about a hundred years or so.

Dana Geffner:
With 100 years being the short-lived gas, it’s clear that actions that we take today are going to stick around for a long time. I ask Ryan how these three greenhouse gases are connected to dairy production.

Ryan Zinn:
So that is a fantastic question. Really there, I would say, are three major sources of greenhouse gases when we think about dairy production and the majority of emissions that we think about are primarily methane. And that really emerges from two main sources, if you want to call them that. One is the manure from animals, primarily ruminants like cows that have four chambers in their stomach and that, more or less, emerges primarily from manure, from poop, basically the other ones as it also burps oddly enough. And there’s a huge debate within the livestock greenhouse gas world about what percentage comes from where, that’s a fantastic conversation to have if you really want to dig deep into it.

So there’s that. There is a little bit of ammonia that comes as well from manure and that’s also considered a greenhouse gas and it can be dangerous, but really methane is kind of like our big ugly, this particular case.
And then I think the other one that is often overlooked is really the feed. And so this is further down the line when we think about emissions. But really what cows, or dairy cows in this particular case, eat really has both a big impact on the emissions that they produce and their manure and their burps.

If you get really energy intensive and high emissions, cattle feed, things like corn and soy, for example, in many cases those will also contribute as you have to make sure that you can actually build that into the cost calculation or the total amount. Because otherwise you’re not really looking into a full picture.

Dana Geffner:
Regardless of which part of the digestive process it comes from, cows produce a lot of methane. Especially cows in the industrial food system who are eating things like corn or soy instead of grazing on pasture. If you’re doing the climate math of the impacts of those cows, you have to include their food too.

And then the final piece of the emissions equation is where that food goes next.

Ryan Zinn:
Yeah. So I think the one thing that, for those folks that don’t spend a lot of time on the farm or in agriculture, when you think about really where, how poop lives or manifests, or however you want to call it. For dairy cows, those cows need to be milked twice a day. In these larger really industrial big operations, that is oftentimes done on concrete milking parlors and really at high volume. So you have sometimes hundreds if not thousands of cows together twice a day. And quite frankly, they’re going to do what they need to do and just, you know, poop like crazy. And so when you have more pasture-based systems or other types of animal livestock, all of that poop gets really, you know, sort of reworked back into the soil, and that is like gold.

Dana Geffner:
Ryan and I wrap up our barns-eye view of industrial dairy. There’s plenty of debate to be had over the differences between industrial and pasture-based dairy – but for now, we’ll hand it over to Ryan’s interview.

Shefali Sharma:
Yeah, my name is Shefali Sharma. I’m based in Berlin in Germany. I’m the director of the European office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Ryan Zinn:
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy got their start in the mid 1980s, connecting the dots between the farm crisis hitting small-scale farmers in the upper Midwest and changing global trade policy. They saw food becoming just another commodity bought and sold on global markets and predicted it would be a problem for rural communities around the globe.

Shefali Sharma:
And actually we were right.

Ryan Zinn:
And since that time, they have continued to point to the intersections of farming and trade policy – and now climate policy too.

Shefali Sharma:
Well, I’ve been leading our work on meat and dairy emissions, what we call the meat and dairy majors. You have the carbon majors such as the oil and gas companies…

Ryan Zinn:
That’s right, the Carbon Majors. It’s like the Major League of baseball, but for polluters.

The 100 companies who make up the Carbon Majors are the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the names are familiar: Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell – you see them every time you fill up at the gas pump.

The fossil fuel industry – rightfully- gets a lot of heat for their outsized role in the climate crisis. But sometimes that means that the role of big agriculture gets overlooked.

In part that’s because the biggest culprits are the big processors who work more behind the scenes.

Shefali Sharma:
You don’t see JBS, or in terms of the meat industry, you don’t see Cargill on, on meat packages. And so they can hide behind this…

Ryan Zinn:
But Shefali and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy are out to change that.

JBS is the biggest meat processor in the world. But you probably wouldn’t know that.

And that’s because Big meat & dairy processors can hide in plain sight since their names aren’t the ones on supermarket packaging.

But here’s what they can’t hide: their outsized impact on the climate crisis.
The food and farming system accounts for over one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the largest contributor to that is industrial meat and dairy production.

Shefali Sharma:
And then the dairy emissions have been calculated by the FAO, so around 14%, 15% of all global emissions.

So what we’ve tried to do is to show, well, look, actually, you’ve got 13 companies that are producing the amount of emissions for driving 6.9 million cars.

Ryan Zinn:
Last year, Shefali and her team came out with a report called “Milking the Planet.” The subheading sums it up: “How Big Dairy is heating up the planet and hollowing rural communities.”

Those 13 companies she just mentioned, their emissions are rocketing up. In just two years, they went up 11%.But our global commitment to each other is that we need to be bringing emissions down, and fast.

Shefali Sharma via Facebook live
“I think a critical finding for us is that even as these companies get bigger and their emissions rose, we saw the continued disempowerment of rural communities and rural producers because the prices paid to them get lower and lower as this model perpetuates overproduction.

And so, we have a few companies, they set the price, the price is extremely low and doesn’t meet the cost of production, let alone a reasonable profit & this is a race to the bottom. This is a problem for rural communities. And what we’re saying is that another way is possible.”

Ryan Zinn:
And while the report takes a look at industrial dairy globally, there’s a lot of focus on what’s happening here in the United States. And that’s because,

Shefali Sharma:
The U.S. kind of dwarfs everything when it comes to scale, especially when it comes to livestock. So what you consider large in the U.S. a thousand cows, you might consider a hundred cows in France to be large.

Ryan Zinn:
We’re into a little bit of cow math now. More than 700 dairy cows or 1000 beef cows is what the United States’ regulators define as a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation” or CAFO for short. But the definition of these factory farms isn’t just about cow counts.

That many animals hemmed together also means that feed is brought to those cows instead of cows grazing on pastures. And that many cows in one place also means a whole lot of urine and manure.

Shefali Sharma:
I don’t think that there’s enough connecting the dots about where, why are these manure lagoons being created? Why are dead zones being created? What’s happening to rural communities as a result?

Ryan Zinn:
Manure lagoons, dead zones – it’s sounding a bit like some farming themed horror movie. And it sort of is. One farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces as much waste as a city of 400,000 people. That waste gets piped out from barns as stinky slurry into massive covered ponds the size of football fields. And there it sits. That contained, concentrated manure causes all sorts of problems as it breaks down into methane, ammonia, and leftover solids.
For one, of course, it stinks. But the gases that don’t smell are the ones that cause the biggest problem. Methane, that super potent greenhouse gas, is actually odorless.

After the waste breaks down, the leftover solids can be trucked away or sprayed on fields. And that leads to those dead zones Shefali mentions.

They’re not quite zombie zones, but another unintended consequence of the endless push to extract as much production and profit out of the land as possible.

Excess nutrients from fertilizer and from all that leftover manure, leach from fields into local bodies of water. There, they kick off massive green algae blooms that then eventually decompose, sucking up all the oxygen in the water.

Algae blooms can be toxic in themselves, but no oxygen means no life. Without oxygen, animals and fish die, their bodies decompose, consuming still more oxygen – it’s all a vicious cycle.

Industrial agriculture is changing the very atmosphere that rural communities breathe.

It’s estimated that nearly 18,000 people die every year from food system related air pollution, most of that from animal agriculture. Petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency for greater regulation note that all that pollution: of land, water, and air — falls hardest on communities of color.

To cite one of those petitions,

“The proliferation of this corporate-controlled model has hollowed out and impacted Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities of color, as well as white rural communities, from the coastal plain of North Carolina to the San Joaquin Valley of California.”

Ryan Zinn:
From immediate environmental impacts to the ongoing climate crisis, communities of color feel the impacts first and worst.

So, Shefali and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released their “Milking the Planet” report. That report pins down the emissions of these mega dairy companies. It attaches names to those emissions and their consequences for communities around the globe.

Shefali Sharma:
Yeah, it was quite telling how the Global Dairy Platform and how some of the big dairy companies responded to our report. There was a big statement made by the global dairy platform, which has all the big guys in it – it’s chair of the board is the Dairy Farmers of America, chief executive there. He’s the president and chief executive officer of this Global Dairy Platform.

And they were not at all happy with what we published and issued a two page statement on our report. So we were quite happy that our report did its job.

Ryan Zinn:
Remember Dairy Farmers of America? That massive cooperative whose executives were riding high on shady cheese deals and flying in a private jet, even as small-scale dairy farmers got poorer? We focused on them in Episode 5 – and how they kept buying up smaller co-ops and processors, seizing control of the market and squeezing small-scale farmers out. Now they’re back.

And once again, it feels like they’re trying to pull one over on all of us.
Big Dairy objects to having their massive emissions growth revealed for the public to see. After all, they’re used to hiding behind the labels of other brands. They claim that their emissions just grew because of all those mergers and acquisitions.

But Shefali and team crunched the numbers. Big Dairy’s emissions went up more than the amount of milk they processed did.

And here’s the even sketchier part. It’s how they claim that they’re addressing the problem.

Instead of actually cutting emissions, they’re redefining terms and talking about “Emissions Intensity Reduction Targets.”

What’s that even mean?

Shefali broke it down in an interview she did when they released the Milking the Planet report.

Shefali Sharma via Facebook live
“It’s a very important question. This is the key thrust of where agribusiness is going in terms of saying “hey, we’re doing something about the climate.” It’s about reducing emission per unit of food produced. So it’s about how many gallons of milk is the Dairy Farmers of America responsible for. And incidentally, Dairy Farmers of America is one of those companies that publishes nothing about their emissions and doesn’t have climate reduction targets, that we know of, at least not publicly.

So if you are reducing emissions per gallon of milk, which means maybe you’re cleaning up your operations or your transport as a company. But you’re doing nothing about your supply chain, so each year, you have a 1000 more animals per farm. And so if you keep increasing the number of animals, your overall emissions are going to go up.

Even if you’re reducing per unit, at the end of the day, what matters to the climate is whether you’re reducing your overall emissions.”

Ryan Zinn:
The math that Dairy Farmers of America is trying to do here is about as shady as their cheese deals. Instead of reducing their actual emissions, just make still more milk so those emissions per gallon, that “emissions intensity,” goes down.

Companies like Dairy Farmers of America, whose model is built on getting bigger and bigger and putting out more milk volume – they’re proposing that overproduction as their climate solution.

That same overproduction that’s driving down milk prices. That same overproduction that’s pushing workers to run throughout their 12-14 hour shifts. And all of this – to produce more milk than people are even consuming.

And to bring it all back to where we’ve been through this series – this is the business model that Fair Trade USA has put their seal of approval on.
It hardly seems fair.

We’ve been following this story of “fair trade dairy” all season. But that term didn’t start with that new label.

Fair trade started as a movement of small-scale farmers and artisans from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Here’s how they describe what they stand for.

FairTrade Foundation clip
“Fair trade means fair for people and planet. It means a fairer deal for farmers and workers on the frontline of the climate crisis.”

These original fair trade farmers and their communities are among those most impacted by the results of climate change. Whether it’s disease in Central America decimating coffee harvests, or warmer temperatures and less rain in West Africa impacting cocoa farmers.

These original fair trade farmer networks have invested a lot in telling their story.

FairTrade Foundation clip
“Fairtrade farmers are on the frontlines of the climate crisis but are working to win a better future for our planet. They work in line with our Eco-Friendly Fair trade standards, bans on deforestation, commitments to reduce carbon footprints, protections for biodiversity.

So every time you choose fair trade, you’re choosing a better future for all of us and the whole planet. Action on climate change is in our hands. Share to help us win a fairer future.”

Ryan Zinn:
And now, that fair trade story is getting used to market the products of some of the companies most responsible for the climate crisis.

Oh, and those “Eco-Friendly Fair Trade standards”? That’s certainly not what Fair Trade USA’s dairy program has. Read the fine print of their standard and there’s a little footnote: the sections on ‘Biodiversity, Ecosystem Function, and Sustainable Production’ don’t apply to dairy.

That’s right. They’re certifying one of the parts of our food and farming system that has the most negative impact on the environment — and just leaving out the environmental parts of the standard.

Just as we saw with workers’ rights, once again, this “fair trade dairy” label is putting marketing ahead of meaningful change.

And doing it on the backs of some of those most impacted by the industrial food system.

Dairy emissions are going up faster than a lot of other sectors. There needs to be urgent action – not just false solutions and glossy labeling claims to address the problem.

Shefali Sharma:
There needs to be this reckoning to integrate in a holistic manner, our agricultural policies and our climate policies to ensure that we can actually create and revive more decentralized dairying. But we can also make it cleaner because of the impact that it has on the environment, on biodiversity, but also on the climate, because all this consolidation, all this pumping out large quantities of milk, paying farmers below the cost of production has just increased poverty and increased emissions.

Ryan Zinn:
I asked Shefali how her team is going about their goal of bringing together agricultural and climate policies.

Shefali Sharma:
We are targeting the U.S., we’re targeting the European Union to say, “Hey, you guys have large chunks of money, public money. And you have an amazing regulatory machine. Why are you not using them to create an agricultural turnaround? You should be using that public money, not to perpetuate these extractive models of production, but rather a transformative model of agriculture. Um, what in the U.S. many refer to as regenerative agriculture, we talk about agroecology here in Europe and internationally as well.

We can do that and you can set clear targets for this, and then you should be regulating these emissions. You should be regulating the impact it has on the environment. This is not being done adequately on either side.

Ryan Zinn:
We’ve been talking a lot about this “fair trade dairy” label all season long, so I press Shefali on where she sees labels and certification fitting into this turnaround that the dairy industry needs to make.

Shefali Sharma:
I wouldn’t say that there’s no place for it, but the point is it’s not going to be the thing that’s going to drive the transition, right? What we need is fundamentally to make space for agroecological practices. Can certification do that? Up to a point, but unless we actually regulate really harmful ways of doing dairy and make the other one much more appealing, structurally from a business point of view, it’s not going to change. So, I think we do need to spend a lot of energy on those policy changes.

Ryan Zinn:
Once again, we come back to the key issue: it’s not about tweaks around the edges, it’s about changing the whole system. Whether it’s a certification label, or a new dairy replacement, it’s about who has power. Who is calling the shots—and who is making money off of any proposed reforms.

Shefali Sharma:
I mean, ultimately when you mass produce anything, you know, whether it’s quinoa or avocados or whatever, you’re going to start to see a huge ecological impact. So size, scale matters. Diversity of our food matters how and where do we source it matters.

I think this is where the corporate consolidation issue is a huge issue and the corporate consolidation fuels that scale. And we need to downsize both our consumption habits obviously, but also our production, we need to descale.

Ryan Zinn:
One of the big obstacles to challenging corporate power and scale is a simple lack of information. Big dairy companies lean heavily on the wholesome rural image. Check their websites and maybe you’ll see one or two success stories of farmers who are committed to the best practices. But it’s hard to know what’s actually going on behind the marketing.

Shefali Sharma:
What is still kind of stunning is the lack of transparency of the industry in terms of just being able to get some basic numbers of how many animals do you have in production in your supply chain? How do you hold companies accountable? I think not just dairy companies, but any company. I think we’re weak in governance in terms of corporate actors and how do we hold them accountable for the very real public costs from their production models. And that’s the ultimate question that I think we face in this coming decade as we are running out of time to limit our carbon footprint. We need to find ways to be able to regulate companies in a way that allows future generations to continue living on a healthy planet. And that’s what it boils down to.

Ryan Zinn:
The stakes are high. Scientists have been saying for years that we have limited time to reign in carbon emissions, especially here in the U.S., where emissions per capita are greater than anywhere else in the world.

But instead of reigning in emissions, Big Dairy seems more committed to redefining the terminology. There are misleading calculations that talk of “emissions intensity” or emissions per gallon of milk, instead of the actual amount of climate destroying gases.

And then there’s false solutions like rebranding the methane coming off those manure lagoons as “biogas” or “renewable natural gas.”

President Biden recently pledged to cut global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. That’s a big deal as methane is that incredibly potent shorter term greenhouse gas – but so far, the dairy industry is passing the buck with false solutions.

And right now, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t actually enforce Clean Air Act rules that apply to other big polluters when it comes to factory farms.

Instead of regulations, there’s a lot of industry-friendly false solutions getting pitched. Listen for terms like “Net Zero” – that’s another one of those math tricks – instead of cutting emissions by making real changes to their business model, buy an “offset” somewhere else. And keep polluting.
Those offsets and dairy’s massively growing emissions will cancel each other out somewhere, or so the story goes.

In reality, it’s just another way to kick the can down the road.
But the road to real climate solutions on our warming planet is getting shorter. And the time for real action is now.

We’ll include a few links in the show notes to break down some of the big solutions being proposed right now – and to link you up with some real, tangible actions that are happening right now to tackle industrial animal agriculture in a meaningful way.

Dana Geffner:
Every time I look around, it seems like the dairy industry is pitching another false solution to keep on rebranding the exploitative status quo as somehow green, ethical, or humane.

We started this series looking at Fair Trade USA’s “fair trade dairy” standard and how it is opposed by the very workers it claims to benefit. They’re opposing it because they weren’t involved in developing the program, and because it doesn’t meet their needs.

And while it may seem like a long way to go from talking about workers’ rights to climate change, they are connected. And not just because Fair Trade USA has thrown their hat into the ring to be yet another false solution for the big corporate interests.

The changing climate is not some distant reality, regardless of how slowly these corporate pledges promise to tackle it. This summer, where I live in Portland, Oregon hit a staggering 116 degrees Fahrenheit. That kind of heat is hard on people who work outdoors – and that includes farmworkers. Since this record-breaking summer that introduced terms like “heat domes” into so many of our vocabularies, we’ve seen worker-led initiatives from Washington to Florida call for action to include heat standards in workplace protections. That means, if the temperature passes a certain point, people in the fields can have extra breaks, shade, and all the other considerations to prevent heat stroke.

Here in the Pacific Northwest where I live, worker unions have advocated for – and won – these changes. And in Florida, the worker-led Fair Food Program added new, enforceable requirements for heat protections to their standards. Those standards and that program are the ones that Migrant Justice looked to when developing their Milk with Dignity program.

The solutions for climate adaptation may look different for dairy farmworkers than they do for those who work in the fields. But the takeaway is that frontline workers know best what they need to adapt to the fast changing climate. And organized workers are best able to take a stand to make those changes – and to stand up to the corporate power that drives so much of the exploitation in our food system.

After this episode, we’ll be taking a short break for winter holidays. We’ll be catching up on what’s been happening with workers’ calls for justice in Chobani’s supply chains since we first began – and we want to hear from you.

Do you work on a farm that’s participating in Fair Trade USA’s “fair trade dairy” program? Or do you have questions that we haven’t touched on so far?

Get in touch, we’ll have ways to contact us in the show notes – we really appreciate all of you who have listened and shared your thoughts.

Until next time, sign up for our email list to stay in touch, and please subscribe to make sure you get the next episode.

You’ve been listening to For a Better World, a podcast by Fair World Project. If you enjoyed the show, make sure to subscribe, review, and share with your friends. Head to our website to sign up for our newsletter – it’s the best way to stay in the loop with our work and take action to support the movements you hear about on this show.

Fair World Project is a non profit organization, and we rely on donations to keep our work going. If you like what you heard or learned something new, consider becoming a monthly donor. Your contribution will help us continue to bring you stories from around the globe. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date between episodes.

For a Better World is made possible by our small but mighty team. Our show is edited by Joshua Moore, Katie Gardner is our producer, Anna Canning is our script writer, our storytellers are Ryan Zinn and Anna Canning, our music was composed by Mark Robertson, and I’m your host and executive director of Fair World Project Dana Geffner. Thank you for listening!

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