A growing demand for milk and cheese in China has the potential to bring California's beleaguered dairy industry back to life --- and with it, renewed concern about its damaging effects on the environment.
As China's middle class grows, so does its penchant for dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. U.S. government data show that Chinese demand for dairy products is growing rapidly. For instance, between 2011 and 2012, imports of skimmed milk powder grew by 49 percent and are expected to increase an additional 18 percent this year.
And although China is trying to build its nascent dairy industry to meet this demand, it relies heavily on imports of high-protein feed. That includes one of California's most water-intensive crops, alfalfa.
"Exports (of alfalfa) to China are definitely increasing," said Daniel Putnam, an agronomist at the University of California, Davis. "We've seen a pretty dramatic rise since 2006, and I think all expectations are that it will probably increase again this year."
But this news, and the already-documented toll California's large dairy farms are having on air and water quality in the Central Valley, is making many environmentalists nervous.
"Definitely, there's a carrying capacity for dairy, and it's air quality," said Brent Newell, legal director for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, an environmental justice organization that focuses mostly on the San Joaquin Valley. "You can't keep sticking more dairies in the San Joaquin Valley in order to export cheese to China."
California is the nation's largest dairy-producing state with nearly 42 billion pounds of milk produced in 2011, or 21 percent of the nation's total milk output, according to the Dairy Institute of California's most recent economic report in 2012.
That success has been attributed largely to the state's model for dairy farming, which maximizes the number of cattle per farm while minimizing the need for on-site food production.
"The traditional dairy farm model in the rest of the country is one where dairy farmers grow a considerable amount of their own feed," said Bill Schiek, an economist with the Dairy Institute, a dairy processors trade group. In California, he said, dairy operators don't grow grain or hay on-site but bring it in. "It's a very specialized operation."