43 million gallons of milk have been dumped so far this year

gallons of milk
CC BY 2.0 Guy Montag

Americans cannot consume all the milk being produced, so much of it is going to waste.

If you ever felt like crying over spilled milk, now’s the time. Dairy farmers in the United States have dumped more than 43 million gallons of milk between January and August of 2016. This milk has been poured into fields, manure lagoons, and animal feed, or down the drain at processing plants. According to the Wall Street Journal, this amount of milk is enough to fill 66 Olympic-sized swimming pools and is the most wasted in at last 16 years.

The problem is that the United States is in the midst of a massive dairy glut. Farmers responded to a shortage two years ago that is now catching up with a nation unable to absorb the quantity of dairy being produced. Prices are so low – down 36 percent from in 2014 – that “many can’t even afford to transport raw milk to market at current prices.” Two years ago, U.S. dairy farmers were exporting tons of milk, but it has all crashed:

“China’s economy has slowed of late, driving global milk demand down. At the same time, the European Union decided to lift domestic caps on milk production, greatly increasing supply. Then Russia slapped sanctions on foreign cheese in retaliation for Western sanctions. Meanwhile, the stronger US dollar meant that American dairy farmers had a tougher time exporting their products.” (Vox)

Some of the excess milk can be donated, as was done by the Michigan Milk Producers Association that gave 83,000 gallons of extra milk to a local food bank; but transportation continues to be a problem when there’s no spare capacity in any tankers. Even organic dairy farmers are attracting buyers with steeply discounted prices, sometimes selling it to conventional suppliers at a great loss.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Food & Drug Administration has pledged to purchase $20 million-worth of cheddar cheese, in order to help ailing dairy farmers (the second such purchase in three months), despite already having 1.2 billion pounds of cheese in cold storage, awaiting a riper market. As Vox points out:

“If the United States wanted to patriotically eat through this surplus, every man, woman, and child would have to grab an extra 3 pounds of cheddar, feta, or provolone and start gnawing. (That’s over and above the 36 pounds of cheese per year the average American already eats.)”

A marketing firm called Dairy Management, Inc. is working to come up with dairy-heavy food products for chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza; hence the replacement of liquid margarine with real butter in McDonald’s baked goods, which should use an additional 600 million pounds of milk annually. But that's hardly a sustainable solution to the problem.

It’s a heartbreaking situation for everyone involved, especially considering how environmentally taxing dairy farming is to begin with. Just like meat, dairy production uses resources such as feed and fuel that are not required on the same scale for fruits and vegetables. To waste milk, therefore, has a greater impact on the environment than to waste a non-animal-based product.

It’s hard, too, to say where the future will lead, as many consumers seem to moving away from dairy-based milks in general. This will spell certain disaster for dairy farmers everywhere, but perhaps bring respite to a planet that is being overheated and polluted by animal-intensive industries such as this one.

Tags: Agriculture | Farming | Food Security

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