Can Cheese Combat Climate Change?

These Vermont cheesemakers think so.

September 30, 2022
Photo by Shana Novak via Getty Images

The threat of climate change loomed large above Vermont’s 2022 Cheese Summit. I was invited to the event to taste and learn about local cheeses, made by the state’s eclectic roster of producers—and I did so, gladly. But as the weekend wore on, it became increasingly clear that, despite the event’s hyper-local focus, Vermont’s cheese producers are tackling a far bigger question: What will cheesemaking look like in a warming world? According to them, dairy just might be the thing that saves us all.

Thanks to their methane-rich belches, cattle are the largest producers of agricultural greenhouse gasses on the planet. Almost half of the land in the United States is used for livestock, and overgrazing of these areas leads to poor soil quality and decreased biodiversity. Meanwhile, the dairy industry has consolidated, replacing smaller farms and producers with corporate mega-farms. As organizations like Milk With Dignity and projects like Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in NY State have documented, these systemic changes combined with falling milk prices have led to increasingly poor, unsafe, and hazardous conditions for farmworkers—especially those facing undocumented status.

What if there’s a way to preserve cheesemaking and dairying practices, all while counteracting the issues caused by our current industrial agricultural system? In Vermont, the prospect felt like a real possibility.

Paul Kindstedt, professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, says that cheese has, for tens of thousands of years, been intertwined with changes in our climate. The start of the Halocene era 11,000 years ago marked “the beginning of an extraordinarily moist, warm, stable human-friendly epoch in climate history that unleashed the power of agriculture and the full potential of our species, for better or for worse,” he said.

However, even during this era of generally “benevolent” climate conditions, there have still been climate change events that threatened human populations. During these events, including a temperature drop in 4000 B.C.E. that impacted the Eurasian Steppe’s Neolithic communities and the flooding of Holland during the Medieval Warm Period, Kindstedt argues that “dairying and cheesemaking have repeatedly served as an irreplaceable fallback option for humanity to cope with climatic catastrophes.”

The reason that dairying has been “an option of last resort” for people during periods of climate uncertainty is actually quite simple. “Grass will grow almost anywhere under some of the most inhospitable conditions,” he said, and “ruminants [like cows and goats] are astonishingly adaptable.”

Ultimately, Kindstedt believes that a somewhat collaborative approach between small- and large-scale producers will be the most effective tactic for scaling up—and increasing access to—sustainable dairy products.

“What works for artisanal cheesemakers who are able to tap into high-end markets… may not necessarily work for larger-scale manufacturers that service broad sections of the public with more affordable products,” said Kindstedt, underscoring a key challenge in efforts to make sustainable products—across all sectors—available to the majority of Americans.

“Nevertheless, the experiences of small artisanal cheesemakers are providing valuable baseline data for the entire cheesemaking sector,” he added. “Much can be learned from the smaller end of the sector where cheesemaker creativity and adaptability can be field tested rapidly and presented to a public that is anxious to hear their stories.”

At the smaller cheese producers found in Vermont—like Shelburne Farms, the farm and educational center that hosted this year’s cheese summit—the quest for true sustainability is an ongoing process that dates back decades.

“I see dairy farming as a part of a holistic agricultural system,” said Helen Cowan, Shelburne Farms’ head cheesemaker. “With proper grazing, manure, and feed management…we can use cattle and other dairy animals to help improve soils and pasture ecosystems.”

“We haven’t tilled our soil since 1993 so all of our land, except the vegetable garden, is in permanent sod,” she explained. “This has resulted in much higher soil carbon values than found on surrounding farmland. We can also see higher carbon values in particular pastures that have been more intensely managed for grazing.” A high carbon value in soil is a good thing: It indicates that, rather than being released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, carbon is effectively getting stored in the soil itself. The goal of this process, known as carbon sequestration, guides much of the farm’s sustainability efforts.

“The goal for the farm is to become carbon neutral or negative by 2028,” added Tom Perry, Shelburne Farms’ cheese sales manager.

The farm has also embraced several “waste diversion” measures to make use of cheesemaking’s byproducts. Leftover whey from the cheesemaking process, for example, is implemented (along with manure) as pasture fertilizer, and an aerobic composting program, which collects stray curds and used paper towels, helps sequester carbon by creating rich, healthy soil.

Vermont Creamery, which produces cheese and dairy products from goats’ milk, is similarly interested in making use of traditional waste products from the cheesemaking process. “Where traditional cheesemaking practices are concerned, a truly sustainable system would place heavy emphasis on the issue of byproducts,” said Adeline Druart, Vermont Creamery’s president. “We’re actively turning our food waste into carbon negative renewable energy through our partnership with Vanguard Renewables and their Vermont-based biodigesters.”

But for all of their successes, Vermont’s dairy and cheese producers are the first to acknowledge the many challenges—and uncertainties—that lay ahead. For Shelburne Farms, “refrigerant use” and finding “more sustainable packaging solutions” are two of the most pressing concerns. Right now, they’re testing biodegradable wax to replace the cheese’s current paraffin wax coating. They’ve also swapped their insulated boxes for Greencell packages and plan on switching to biodegradable ice packs in the near future.

The undertaking is a slow one: On a tour of their facilities, Perry reminded me that Vermont’s reputation as a haven for pasture-raised dairy and sustainable farming is one earned from decades of dedication and work. But as the climate crisis grows ever-more urgent, so do consumers’ desire for solutions.

Moreover, given the enormous demand for cheese (in 2020 alone, the average American consumer ate 40.2 pounds of the stuff), it’s hard to imagine the commercial dairy industry embracing a regenerative, resilient approach with smaller yields. Instead, consumers have increasingly turned to dairy alternatives—which promise a lesser environmental impact—to get their cheese fix. Miyoko’s, which uses cashews as the basis of its plant-based cheese and dairy, notes that its “products generate up to 98 percent less [greenhouse gas] emissions than conventional dairy products.” Violife, another vegan cheese brand, claims its products produce a 50 percent smaller climate footprint compared to their dairy counterparts. While these numbers certainly mark an improvement from our current industrial dairy system, Kindstedt believes the hype is premature.

Specifically, he says that these products’ total environmental impacts, nutritional profiles, costs, and land usage will need to face extensive scientific evaluation to understand how they compare to real dairy and cheese products. Only then will we have a sense of whether these products may (or may not) provide a sustainable alternative to dairy in the long-term.

“Does anyone really think that profit-driven startup companies can become the savior of humanity by blowing away dairying and cheesemaking?” he asked.

I’m inclined to agree with Kindstedt: Our relationship with dairy has been too long, too intertwined, and too rich to give up on just yet. Ultimately, however, it’s up to consumers to decide what the cheese of the future might look like—whether that means embracing the model set by Vermont’s cheesemakers, or finding a solution elsewhere.

What changes would you like to see the in the cheese industry? Share your thoughts below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • Suzanne
  • Yummyyum4Me
  • Adam Jones
    Adam Jones
  • katemcd
Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor


Smaug February 15, 2023
I read somewhere about a nutritional additive- I think seaweed based- that seemed capable of greatly reducing flatulence among cattle. Don't remember any details, but it sounded like it might be practicable.
Suzanne October 9, 2022
I agree about hearing enough about climate change. That is what it does. It goes in cycles. That said carbon sequestration and responsible land use are beneficial for all of us. We do need more small farms as they have more concern about the animals and land in their care than industrial operations. Profit is nice, and essential, to remain in business but it should not be the driving force. Could the whey be used for pig or chicken food rather than composted? Bacon and fried chicken are yummy....compost tastes like dirt. I love cheese and dairy products!
katemcd October 9, 2022
I made the BEST tangu caramels from whey! Amazing!
Sorry that this thread turned negative. Unfortunate and unnecessary.
katemcd October 9, 2022
Tangy caramels.
Smaug February 15, 2023
Yes, climate does go through cycles, but they don't occur without causes. It happens that this one the causes are known, and they are us.
Yummyyum4Me October 9, 2022
Oh stop already with the damn climate change shit. Won't be ordering any more stuff from you......
Adam J. October 9, 2022
my thoght went immediately to animal free dairy that's genetically the same as dairy. The whey is produced with fungus. . I wonder what the water demands are for developing a system of making cheese and dairy without the cow would be for a carbon footprint?
katemcd October 9, 2022
Thank you for this educational article! Other than buying cheese that uses the carbon-sequestered soil, what can the average citizen do to help? Fighting corporate farms is probably an exercise in futility, and it would take some pretty clever diplomacy to convince them that they would benefit from sequestering carbon in the long run. An education campaign clearly needs to happen. I didnt know anything about this. I am the average Joe-Ann who is eager to know more! I will take the initiative to learn more. Thank you again!
Vannes_Et_Sa_Femme October 3, 2022
Raw milk is the best. I have to buy it on the sly from a local dairy rancher. I think that small dairy farms are the way forward. We need to fight for small independent farms
samanthaalison September 30, 2022
Very interesting article! For the non-dairy cheeses, I also wonder about the water usage - I know that's a big deal with the almond industry in California, but no idea how thirsty cashews are.
jpriddy October 9, 2022
Cashews are also thirsty, requiring 14,220 liters water/kilo of nuts, slightly less than almonds.
Fern October 9, 2022
I often wonder about those numbers. Is this the number of liters it takes to support the entire tree for a lifetime, divided by the kilos of nuts it produces over a lifetime?