Spatialized Life Cycle Assessment of Fluid Milk Production and Consumption in the United States

Andrew D. Henderson, Anne Asselin-Balençon, Martin C. Heller, Jasmina Burek, Daesoo Kim, Lindsay Lessard, Manuele Margni, Rosie Saad, Marty D. Matlock, Greg Thoma, Ying Wang, Olivier Jolliet*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Purpose: Understanding the main factors affecting the environmental impacts of milk production and consumption along the value chain is key towards reducing these impacts. This paper aims to present detailed spatialized distributions of impacts associated with milk production and consumption across the United States (U.S.), accounting for locations of both feed and on-farm activities, as well as variations in impact intensity. Using a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) approach, focus is given to impacts related to (a) water consumption, (b) eutrophication of marine and freshwater, (c) land use, (d) human toxicity and ecotoxicity, and (e) greenhouse gases. Methods: Drawing on data representing regional agricultural practices, feed production is modelled for 50 states and 18 main watersheds and linked to regions of milk production in a spatialized matrix-based approach to yield milk produced at farm gate. Milk processing, distribution, retail, and consumption are then modelled at a national level, accounting for retail and consumer losses. Custom characterization factors are developed for freshwater and marine eutrophication in the U.S. context. Results and discussion: In the overall life cycle, up to 30% of the impact per kg milk consumed is due to milk losses that occur during the retail and consumption phases (i.e., after production), emphasizing the importance of differentiating between farm gate and consumer estimates. Water scarcity is the impact category with the highest spatial variability. Watersheds in the western part of the U.S. are the dominant contributors to the total water consumed, with 80% of water scarcity impacts driven by only 40% of the total milk production. Freshwater eutrophication also has strong spatial variation, with high persistence of emitted phosphorus in Midwest and Great Lakes area, but high freshwater eutrophication impacts associated with extant phosphorus concentration above 100 µg/L in the California, Missouri, and Upper Mississippi water basins. Overall, normalized impacts of fluid milk consumption represent 0.25% to 0.8% of the annual average impact of a person living in the U.S. As milk at farm gate is used for fluid milk and other dairy products, the production of milk at farm gate represents 0.5% to 3% of this annual impact. Dominant contributions to human health impacts are from fine particulate matter and from climate change, whereas ecosystem impacts of milk are mostly due to land use and water consumption. Conclusion: This study provides a systematic, national perspective on the environmental impacts of milk production and consumption in the United States, showing high spatial variation in inputs, farm practices, and impacts.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1890
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number3
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by the Dairy Research Institute, Chicago, IL, USA.


  • Dairy
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Farm
  • Milk production
  • Milk consumption
  • Spatial analysis


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