Carbon Footprint of Cheese Calculator: Manufacturing, Cheese Type, Location

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 29, 2024

Two mice carrying a plate of cheese and looking at the carbon footprint of cheese wafting from the swiss on the plant and wondering how to calculate cheese carbon footprint by type of cheese.

Unfortunately for all cheese lovers, the carbon footprint of cheese is one of the highest footprints among all foods. In fact, it’s right there on top with other food items such as meat and other dairy products when purchased from commercial makers.

It’s challenging to determine the precise impact of cheese as this is just one of the many milk products out there.

But, to many people, the carbon footprint of cheese and other dairy products, in general, is very alarming.

Most of the carbon footprint of cheese stems from the life of the cow and the cheese-making process.

This guide explains how the carbon footprint of cheese is measures, including how to calculate its emissions, how each cheese type affects the environment as well as the effects of manufacturing cheese. But, it also provides options for chesse lovers who want to reduce their footprint.

When you buy cheese that is locally crafted on small farms, these alarming emissions amounts drop significantly.

Carbon Footprint of Cheese: Real Cheese Footprint

During the cheese-making and delivering processes, there are a few potential greenhouse gas emission sources. However, most of the carbon footprint of cheese occurs during the production of milk on the dairy farm.

This, according to researchers, accounts for at least 90% of the real cheese footprint.6

Graphics of life cycle assessment of cheese production showing the different stage which includes crop production, milk production, transportation, processing, packaging, transportation to stores, retail, and transportation, use, and disposal.

Dairy practices today create about 2.2 kgCO2e per kilogram of milk or 1 kgCO2e per pound of milk. Additionally, you will need 10 pounds of milk to create one pound of cheese.

Most greenhouse gas emissions in the dairy farm come mostly from methane produced in the rumen of cattle, methane from manure, and nitrous oxide from fertilizer.5

When cows and other ruminants eat, the microbes found in their rumen (one of the compartments in their stomach) digest the food and produce methane as a by-product. This is known as enteric methane which the ruminants expel in the form of burps.

Enteric methane is the most significant contributor to farm GHG emissions.

A small percentage of farm GHG emissions comes from when farmers use manure or fertilizer in fields. This produces nitrous oxide which is a potent GHG.

Farmers have several options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

They can change the composition of the field to decrease methane or they can manage fertilizer to reduce excess nitrogen runoff.

There are also other options for efficient milk production. Lastly, the farmers can use manure methane to make biogas in a digester.

Any of these improvements in dairy farms will reduce GHG emissions significantly.

Besides farm work, the manufacturing of dairy products including their packaging contributes to the second highest percentage of GHG emissions of cheese.

For example, a dairy farm that focuses on producing hard cheese emits about 0.5 to 0.6 kgCO2e for every kilogram of cheese.6

Large containers filled with milk and equipment used to make cheese in a production facility.

(Image: joakant16)

In this stage, the emissions vary significantly and there are a lot of ways to minimize GHG emissions.

Some factors that impact emissions at this stage include:

  1. Cheese type: For instance, drier cheddar cheese requires more energy per pound than something like Monterey Jack for aging.
  2. Type and length of aging: Cheese that does not require storage at low temperatures will use less energy for refrigeration than those that do require low temperatures.
  3. Co-product creation: You can reduce the GHG of cheese if you produce it along with other products such as butter and cream.
  4. Energy recovered from permeate: You can reduce GHG emissions by using animal waste to create electricity or manure by feeding the waste to a digester to create biogas.

Similarly, a tiny percentage of greenhouse gas emissions from the production of cheese stems from the combustion of fossil fuels such as diesel and gasoline used for the transportation of the products. Moreover, you should also include the natural gas and electricity used in retail as well as final use stages.

The remaining small percentage of emission occurs when the cheese reaches the consumer, they eat it and discard the packaging. If you add the packaging or spoiled cheese to a landfill, it emits carbon dioxide and methane gasses.

About 15% to 30% of food in the United States is wasted. Two percent of the annual energy in the US is used in the production, transportation, sale, and preparation of wasted food.

The major contributor to cheese waste is mold. Therefore, manufacturers should control mold on top of producing better quality products.

Carbon Footprint of Cheese: Life Cycle Assessment

Before calculating the carbon footprint of cheese, you must first know what a life cycle assessment (LCA) is.12 LCA is the value given to a product that accounts for the health and environmental effects associated with the entire life cycle of the product from production to use to discard.

LCAs evaluate the sustainability of production processes.

LCAs cover the acquisition of raw materials, the emissions they give off, and the production, use, and eventual disposal of the product. The LCA greenhouse gas emissions of a kg of hard cheese is about 8.5 kgCO2e.6

This is similar to driving for 20 miles in a car or leaving a 100 W bulb on for an hour.

Carbon Footprint of Cheddar

Once you understand the steps that go into the life cycle of cheese, you can calculate its carbon footprint. You may need to use a carbon footprint of cheese calculator.

The table below shows the total carbon footprint of cheddar cheese.6

Unit Process Average for Cheddar Cheese (CO2e/kg)
1. Impact of milk production 1.2
2. Impact of cream removal 1.2
3. Shipping 1.203
4. Processing plant 8.3
5. Shipping distance to retail 8.377
6. Total Carbon Footprint of Cheddar Cheese 8.377

Sustainable Cheese and Neutral Cheeses

If you are a cheese lover and you are feeling guilty about its environmental impact, you should consider switching to sustainable cheese and neutral cheeses. Experts recommend switching to plant-based cheese which can cut your associated climate impact of cheese by half.

Top angle shot of sustainable cheese displayed in a rectangular ceramic bowl, complemented by cuts of green herbs on a wooden table.

(Image: Megumi Nachev15)

Vegetarian cheese is also suitable for cheese lovers who are lactose intolerant. Additionally, they are a nutritious and delicious option.

Vegan cheese has different varieties available. They are made completely with plant products such as vegetables, soy, seeds, and nuts.

They can in a wide variety of textures and flavors and produce significantly less GHG than their dairy counterparts.

The process of creating vegan cheese varies depending on the cheese, however, they are usually made with a variation of the following steps:

  1. Soaking: Seeds and nuts are often soaked to make them softer for the coming processes.
  2. Blending: After soaking the seeds, nuts, and vegetables, they are usually blended with other ingredients such as probiotics, spices, and water to create a creamy texture.
  3. Fermenting: To get the cheesy tangy flavor, some vegan cheeses get fermented. In this process, probiotics are added to the mixture which sits at room temperature for a certain period.
  4. Shaping: Once the mixture is ready, the cheese is then shaped into slices, and blocks depending on the type of cheese being made.
  5. Aging: Some people prefer aging the cheese to create a stronger texture and flavor.

The different types of vegan cheese include:

  1. Vegetable cheese: This is created by blending vegetables such as carrots and potatoes with other ingredients like garlic, lemon juice, and yeast. Then flavor is added to the mixture to make it taste like cheese.
  2. Soy cheese: This is created by blending seasonings, vinegar, water, and cooked soybeans. The mixture is then shaped and pressed into slices and blocks.
  3. Nut cheeses: This cheese is usually created by blending seasonings, probiotics, water, and of course nuts. The mixture is then fermented to create a cheesy and tangy flavor.

It goes without saying that planting more trees will help offset the carbon footprint produced by cheese and other dairy products. Through a beef and dairy carbon offset tree planting program, trees can sequester your carbon emissions reducing or removing it completely from the atmosphere.

Food and Climate Change

Is there a relationship between food and climate change? The short answer is yes.

What you eat and the process that goes into getting that food in your mouth not only affects your health but also the environment. Most food in the market today goes through processing, transportation, distribution, preparation, consumption, and sometimes disposal.

Every single step mentioned here creates greenhouse gas (GHG)7 which contributes to climate change by trapping the heat of the sun in the atmosphere.

In fact, almost one-third of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans stem from food.1 The food carbon footprint is very alarming.

Most of the food-related GHG comes from land use and agriculture and this includes but is not limited to:

  • The digestive process in cattle produces methane, a very potent GHG.
  • The manufacturing and use of nitrous oxide in fertilizers (used in crop production) also produce GHGs.
  • Cutting down forests for farmland expansion reduces carbon dioxide sequestration.
  • Manure management, burning of crop residue, rice cultivation, the use of fuels in farms, and other agricultural activities also cause GHG emissions.

Besides these major greenhouse gas emitters in the agricultural processes, a smaller share of GHG emissions from food is caused by:

  • Management of food waste
  • Industrial processes such as the production of packaging materials such as aluminum and paper
  • Transport and preservation of food such as refrigeration

Carbon Footprint of Cheese: Difference Between Foods With High Climate Impact and Climate-Friendly Food

You can measure the climate impact of food in terms of the intensity of their GHG emissions. This intensity is expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents or CO2e.

This measurement includes the CO2 that every calorie, gram of protein, or kilogram of food produces.

The truth about food emissions is that animal-based food, particularly, farmed shrimp, dairy, and red meat are generally associated with the highest GHG emissions. Several reasons contribute to this high emission they include:

  • The production of meat often needs extensive grasslands that are often created by deforestation which releases the CO2 stored by forests and prevents further carbon sequestration.
  • Sheep and cows usually create methane as they digest plants and grass.
  • The waste of domestic animals such as cows on pasture, and chemical fertilizers used for growing crops create nitrous oxide which is another GHG.
  • Shrimp farms are built in areas on the coast which were previously mangrove forests that used to absorb high carbon amounts. Most of the carbon footprint of prawns and shrimp results from stored carbon released into the atmosphere when mangrove forests are destroyed to create shrimp farms.

On the other hand, plant-based foods such as lentils, nuts, peas, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables usually use less water, land, and energy and have lower GHG intensities compared to animal-based foods.

The tables below show the carbon footprint of different food products.8 You can compare emissions based on weight (per kilogram of food) or using nutritional units (per 1,000 kilocalories or per 100 grams of protein) which show you how efficiently each type of food supplies protein or energy.

Table 1: GHG Emissions per Kilogram of Food2

Graphics of GHG emissions per kilogram of food showing poultry (9.9 kg), beef (70.6 kg), cheese (23.9 kg), lamb (39.7 kg), fish (13.6 kg), pork (12.3 kg), milk (3.2 kg), nuts & grains (3.6 kg), shellfish (26.9 kg), bread and pasta 1.6 kg), legumes (2 kg), nuts (0.4 kg), tofu (3.2 kg), eggs (4.7 kg), fruits (0.9 kg) and vegetables (0.7 kg) food images with equivalent GHG emissions per kilogram.

Food GHG Emission per kg of Food (kgCO2e)
Nuts 0.4
vegetables 0.7
Fruit 0.9
Breads and Pastas 1.6
Legumes 2.0
Tofu 3.2
Milk 3.2
Nuts and grains 3.6
Eggs 4.7
Poultry 9.9
Pork 12.3
Fish 13.6
Cheese 23.9
Shellfish 26.9
Lamb 39.7
Beef 70.6

Table 2: GHG emissions per 100 g of protein2

Bar graph showing food GHG emissions per 100g of protein, with a list of food (nuts, legumes, breads and pasta, tofu, rice and grains, poultry, fish, vegetables, pork, milk, fruit, cheese, shellfish, lamb, beef) on the y-axis and the amount of GHG emissions per kg on the x-axis, with nuts having the least and beef having the most emissions.

Food GHG emission per 100g of protein (kgCO2e)
Nuts 0.3
Legumes 0.9
Breads and pastas 2.0
Tofu 4.2
Rice and grains 4.8
Poultry 5.7
Fish 6.0
Vegetables 6.8
Pork 7.6
Milk 9.5
Fruit 10.4
Cheese 10.8
Shellfish 18.2
Lamb 19.9
Beef 35.5

Table 3: GHG emissions per 1,000 kilocalories2

Bar graph showing food GHG emissions per 1000 kilocalories, with a list of food (nuts, legumes, bread and pastas, tofu, fruit, eggs, vegetables, pork, milk, poultry, cheese, fish, lamb, beef, shelfish) on the x-axis and the amount of GHG emissions per 1000 kilocalories on the y-axis, with nuts having the lowest and shellfish having the most emissions.

Food GHG emissions per 1,000 kilocalories (kgCO2e)
Nuts 0.10
Legumes 0.50
Bread and pastas 0.60
Tofu 1.20
Fruit 1.50
Eggs 3.20
Vegetables 3.30
Pork 5.15
Milk 5.25
Poultry 5.30
Cheese 6.20
Fish 7.60
Lamb 12.5
Beef 25.9
Shellfish 26.1

The three tables above show a clear difference between food with high climate impact and climate-friendly food. For instance, the carbon footprint of eggs and the carbon footprint of tofu is significantly less than the carbon footprint of cheese and beef.

The value of the emissions highlighted in the tables is in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (kgCO2e). This value takes into account carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses such as nitrous oxide and methane.

These other GHG are converted into carbon dioxide equivalents with the same potential for global warming.

Is Dairy Bad for the Environment?

The production of milk takes place everywhere in the world. The global demand for dairy products increases daily because of urbanization, rising incomes, population growth, and the Westernization of diets in nations such as India and China.

The increase in demand for dairy products creates pressure on natural resources such as soil and freshwater.

The global population of dairy cows is approximately 270 million. The production of milk affects the environment in several ways and varies according to the practices of feed growers and dairy farmers.

Close up shot of a young Holstein cow sitting in a grassfield.

(Image: tombock113)

Cows bred solely for dairy and their manure create greenhouse gas emissions which lead to climate change. Moreover, if fertilizers and manures are handled poorly they can degrade local water resources.

Not to mention feed production and dairy farming that are unsustainable can cause the loss of areas that are ecologically important such as forests, wetlands, and prairies.

The demand for feed crops such as soy, alfalfa, and corn has led to the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land. Additionally, daily operations in a dairy farm can cause soil degradation and water pollution when feed crop and manure production are poorly managed.

Is dairy bad for the environment? The short answer is, Yes!

Some effects of dairy farms include:

  • Air: Some dairy activities lead to airborne ammonia emissions which damage downstream habitats causing loss of species diversity. Moreover, odor and particulate matter resulting from on-farm activities can destroy air quality.
  • Water: Dairy farms consume large water volumes because of various activities such as managing manure, watering cows, growing feeds, and processing products. This fertilizer and manure runoff from dairy farms can pollute close water resources.
    They can facilitate the growth of algae in local waterways which reduces oxygen for aquatic animal and plant life.
  • Habitat: Currently, more than two-thirds of the agricultural land in the world is used for maintaining livestock including dairy and beef cows. Additionally, one-third of all the land in the world suffers desertification as a result of overgrazing, deforestation, and poor agricultural practices.9
    In some areas, dairy cows contribute to healthy habitats because of well-managed grazing.
  • Soil health: Livestock farming is a significant contributor to global soil erosion. Conversion of forests into feed crop production areas or pasture, soil compaction from cattle hooves and overgrazing causes loss of organic matter and topsoil and this takes decades or centuries to replace.
    In contrast, if manure application and grazing are well-managed, it can improve the health of the soil in croplands and pastures.

Dairy Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint of milk is quite significant because of its source. GHG emissions associated with the production of milk result from various activities involved in the life cycle of the dairy supply chain.

These activities include:

  • Use of fossil fuel when producing fodder and feed for the animals
  • Use of agricultural inputs such as manure and fertilizers
  • Enteric fermentation
  • Processing of concentrates in plants used in cattle feed
  • Manure management

Post-farm activities such as the processing of milk into various dairy products, packaging, transportation of these products as well as waste and disposal.

Therefore, when measuring the dairy carbon footprint, it’s important to consider all these activities, from cradle-to-grave. This carbon footprint sums up the total GHG emitted throughout the lifecycle of milk.

The most common GHGs in this life cycle include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. From the tables above, you can see that milk alone contributes about 3.2 CO2e/kg and is among the highest carbon emitters among foods.

Plant Milk vs Cow Milk Environmental Impact

Since dairy contributes significantly to GHG emissions, people are looking into plant-based alternatives. There’s a wide range of plant-based milk alternatives available and they include but are not limited to:10

  • Almond
  • Oat
  • Soy
  • Coconut

One common question is weighing the environmental impact of plant milk vs cow milk. The tables below show the plant milk vs cow milk environmental impacts across various metrics such as water use, GHG emissions, and land use.

A liter of each milk is compared side by side.

Three bar graphs showing environmental impact of milk (rice milk, almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, dairy milk, cow milk), with the first graph showing dairy milk having the highest land use, the second graph showing dairy milk having the highest greenhouse gas emissions and the third graph showing cow milk having the highest freshwater usage.

The following tables measure the impact of a liter of milk across various demographics. The impacts span across the supply chain including packaging, transport, processing, on-farm production, and land usage.

Table 1: Land use3

Milk Land Use per Square Meters
Rice milk 0.34
Almond milk 0.50
Soy milk 0.66
Oat milk 0.76
Dairy milk 0.95

Table 2: Greenhouse gas emissions3

Milk Carbon Emission (CO2e/kg)
Almond milk 0.70
Oat milk 0.90
Soy milk 0.98
Rice milk 1.15
Dairy milk 3.15

Table 3: Freshwater use in liters3

Milk Freshwater Used (Liters)
Soy milk 27.80
Oat milk 48.24
Rice milk 269.81
Almond milk 371.46
Cow milk 628.20

It is evident that cow milk has a significantly higher impact than plant-based counterparts across all metrics. From the table above, cow milk uses ten times more land and two to twenty times as much water than the other alternatives.

Therefore, it’s safe to infer that switching to plant-based milk will significantly reduce the environmental footprint of your diet.

What Is Cheese: Is Cheese Meat?

Cheese is a food with many contradictions.11 Mostly, people wonder whether it’s healthy or not and whether they should include it in their daily diet or consider it an indulgence.

But what is cheese really? And what is its relationship with meat?

Is cheese meat?

First and foremost, cheese is not meat. It’s a dairy product.

Batches of neutral cheeses, represented by cheese wheels on racks, stored in a storage facility.

(Image: AnthonyArnaud14)

People make natural cheese with salt, meat, rennet enzyme, and good bacteria.4 The history of cheese goes back more than 4,000 years.

It started its journey from Asia to Europe and eventually reached America. Most reports say that cheese is one of the foods that were found on board the Mayflower.

Centuries after its inception, Swiss immigrants established Midwestern Wisconsin as a cheese production hub. Today, in the United States alone, more than one-third of milk is used to produce cheese.

In 2022, the US made about 13.25 billion pounds of cheese. It’s safe to infer that cheese is a major part of the American diet as the average American consumes about 40 pounds annually.

Cheese is divided into eight categories. They include:

  1. Blue: Gorgonzola and others
  2. Hard: Parmesan
  3. Soft and ripened: Brie
  4. Pasta filata: Mozzarella
  5. Soft and fresh: Ricotta
  6. Processed: American cheese
  7. Semi-Soft: Havarti
  8. Semi-hard: Cheddar

It’s important to understand that when cheese is made sustainably, like on a home farm, these footprints are significantly eliminated. Locally grown and crafted cheeses are much better for the planet than large, commercial brands.

Understanding the carbon footprint of cheese, and its benefits, can help consumers make informed dietary decisions, which can impact their personal carbon footprint. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Cheese

What Calculations Should Be Included in the Carbon Footprint of Cheese?

The carbon footprint calculation takes into account everything from cradle to grave or the life cycle of the cheese.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

This is the amount of carbon produced by an item throughout its life cycle. Understanding ‘what is a carbon footprint’ is crucial for addressing climate change and minimizing our negative impact on the environment.

What Is a Carbon Emissions Calculator?

The carbon emissions calculator adds up the total carbon emissions of a product throughout its lifecycle.

How Do You Calculate Carbon Footprint Manually?

Knowing how to calculate carbon footprint manually is essential to understand your environmental impact. You can calculate the carbon footprint manually by adding up the total CO2e/kg produced in every part of a product’s life cycle.


References

1Hollerman, F. (July 7, 2021). How Bad is Cheese for the Climate Compared to Meat? Fork Ranger. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://www.forkranger.com/cheese-compared-to-meat/>

2United Nations. (2023). Food and Climate Change: Healthy Diets for a Healthier Planet. United Nations Climate Action. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/climate-issues/food>

3Ritchie, H. (January 19, 2022). Dairy vs. Plant-based Milk: What are the Environmental Impacts. Our World in Data. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impact-milks>

4Lawler, M. (July 1, 2022). Cheese 101: Benefits, Types, How it May Affect Your Weight, and More. Everyday Health. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/diet/cheese-health-benefits-risks-types-top-sellers-more/>

5Sparks, H. (June 1, 2022). This Popular Food is a Major ‘Under the Radar’ Cause of Carbon Emissions: Study. New York Post. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://nypost.com/2022/06/01/this-popular-food-is-a-major-cause-of-carbon-emissions-study/>

6Aguirre-Villegas, H., Kraatz, S., Milani, F., Newenhouse, A., Passos-Fonseca, T., & Reinemann, D. (2011). Sustainable Cheese Production: Understand the Carbon Footprint of Cheese. University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension, 28. Retrieved on July 31, 2023, from <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327269731_Sustainable_Cheese_Production_Understand_the_Carbon_Footprint_of_Cheese>

7United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, April 13). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases>

8Scarborough, P., Appleby, P. N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A. D. M., Travis, R. C., Bradbury, K. E., & Key, T. J. (2014, June 11). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4372775/>

9Wikipedia. (2023, August 1). Deforestation. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation>

10Sethi, S., Tyagi, S. K., & Anurag, R. K. (2016, September 2). Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5069255/>

11Wikipedia. (2023, June 17). Cheese. Wikipedia. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheese>

12Sustainable Facilities Tool. (2023). Life Cycle Assessment. Sustainable Facilities Tool. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from <https://sftool.gov/plan/400/life-cycle-assessment>

13Photo by tombock1. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/cow-farm-animal-dairy-livestock-2559383/>

14Photo by AnthonyArnaud. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/cheese-refining-milk-farm-cow-5125021/>

15Photo by Megumi Nachev. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/bBCRrplhhZ4>

16Photo by joakant. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/cheese-parmesan-production-parma-677644/>