Got More Milk? Sustainably Meeting Dairy Demand In India


This article appeared first in June 2018 on the website of the Global Harvest Initiative, the previous host institution for the GAP Report.

India will account for 54 percent of the increase in global demand for dairy over the next 10 years according to FAO/OECD estimates.

Over the next decade, India will account for 54 percent of the increase in global demand for milk and fresh dairy products. To meet the skyrocketing demand, India’s dairy producers will need to produce an additional 56 million tons of milk per year by 2026, an increase in output of 40 percent from 2014 levels.

Thanks to decades of public-sector investment and partnerships with the World Bank, India is already the largest dairy producer in the world. In 1965, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was established to transform dairying into an instrument for the development of India’s rural sector. Farmer cooperatives sprang up around the country. They collected and processed milk and other dairy products and sold them in villages and cities.

The “White Revolution”, as it is known, increased the incomes of 80 million Indian farmers and expanded people’s access to an important source of protein, minerals and vitamins.*

Despite its status as the world’s leading milk producer, the milk productivity of India’s dairy cattle and buffalo is very low.

In 2014, India had 50 million dairy cows and 40 million water buffalo, a total of 90 million animals producing 140 million tons of milk. Dairy cattle produce an average of 14,000 hectograms per animal and buffalo produce 19,000 hectograms per animal.

By contrast, in 2014 the U.S. had just 9.2 million dairy cows and produced more than 93 million tons of milk, an average of 101,000 hectograms per animal. (See figure below.)



More Milk, But Too Much Methane

Not only is milk productivity per animal low, but methane emission from milk production is high.

A review of the climate impacts of dairy production in South Asia by FAO revealed that the region is responsible for 23 percent of the global methane emissions from dairy production.

The report identified poor feed quality as the major cause of methane emission from dairy-producing cows and buffalo.

Most of India’s milk production takes place at small-scales in mixed farming systems (farms producing crops and livestock.) The quality of the feed stocks used by small farmers is often poor. Poor quality feed is difficult for animals to digest and this can increase the amount of methane produced during the digestive process.

If milk productivity is not improved, farmers will use more animals to meet rapidly growing demand, with profound consequences for the environmental sustainability of milk production in India.

A Productive Sustainable Milk Revolution

Buffalo have significant potential for meeting India’s dairy demand in a sustainable way. Buffalo are more adaptable to India’s increasingly dry, hot climate. They also they convert the low-quality indigenous grasses into milk more efficiently than dairy cows, improving productivity and reducing emissions.

Consumers are increasingly choosing buffalo over dairy cow milk because they prefer the higher fat content of buffalo milk, while farmers prefer the higher returns they receive from buffalo milk compared to cow milk.

Improving genetics, feed and animal care practices for cows and buffalo can provide more milk using fewer animals, while also reducing methane emissions.

Increasing access to mechanization for small and medium-scale farmers would reduce reliance on cattle for draught power, allowing investments in milk production.

Increasing the productivity and sustainability of milk production is essential if India is to reach its targets for reducing food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty and climate impacts.

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