Your Obsession With Yogurt is Destroying the Environment


Go to any grocery store in any metropolitan center. You’ll see your customary grocers' goods like fruit and vegetables. Amble over to the dairy section and that's when you will see it: a veritable mountain of yogurt. Fruit on the bottom, creamy, custard style, low-fat, half-fat, protein-injected, now with vitamin C and D. In the midst of all that plebeian yogurt you will find the big one, Greek yogurt, the culinary delight that is oozing over America. It's just too bad it's going to end up destroying the environment.

The most viscous of yogurts, legend has it that Greek yogurt descended from Zeus himself during an accident with milk and a lightening rod. That's a lie, but Greek yogurt is currently experiencing a boom time in America. Our appetite for strained whey products has increased by over half in the past year. It’s a $2 billion-dollar-a-year industry

The substantial increase in its popularity stems from a couple factors. It's low in fat and has more protein than other yogurt. Those two qualities alone almost require health-conscious people to gobble up the goop by the gallon. Add to that its versatility in both sweet and savory preparations, and you've got a frenzy on your hands.  

What could possibly be bad about this?

In 2011 New York produced 66 million gallons of acid whey. This whey is nearly as acidic as orange juice and that's just not good for the environment. Greek yogurt is a particular concern because it takes so much more milk product to produce, about three cups of milk for every one cup of yogurt. Where does this waste go? New York Greek yogurt magnate Chobani has been delivering the toxic greenish mess to local farms, where it is then mixed in with live stock feed. Delicious. 

Chobani reached out to me via e-mail,

Right now, we choose to return whey to farmers, most of whom use it as a supplement to their livestock feed. Some is used as a land-applied fertilizer but only at farms that have nutrient management plans in place with the state environmental conservation agency. A small percentage is also sent to community digesters, where the whey is used to produce energy.

A photo of the digesters that Chobani is speaking of can be seen below:

Photo of an actual manure slurry of whey / Justin Ellion / Modern Farmer

How is this a problem for the environment? Acidic whey cannot just be dumped, as Justin Elliott writes in Modern Farmer

"It's a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply be dumped. Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers."

Whey is a disaster for biological systems. That's a real problem, considering how much of the acidic crap we have to get rid of. Americans love dairy products and it just so happens that both cheese and yogurt require the removal of whey. A factory that processes 26,500 gallons of milk per day creates the same amount of pollution as a city of 60,000 people. In recent years, whey accidents have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of fish

What are possible solutions for this? There's been considerable discussion about turning the whey protein into infant formula, but they first have to figure out how to extract the milk sugar from the whey. For now though, most whey passes through an anaerobic digester which can then be used to produce electricity. It's not the most cost-effective solution, as they cost around $4.5 million to build. While these solutions help to curb the problem, none of them come close to solving it.

Whoever can figure out a viable solution to the world's whey problem will likely become a very wealthy individual. Until then, Greek yogurt enthusiasts will have to indulge in their thick pleasure with the heavy weight on their minds that they could also be destroying the environment, one spoon full at a time. 

photo via