MegaMilk: Charting the Consolidation of the Dairy Industry
Today’s dairy industry looks very different to how it did just 30 years ago.
Milk production in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 50% over that time frame—yet, the total number of dairy farms has dropped by three-quarters.
Fewer and larger farms now have the lion’s share of all U.S milk cow inventory. While they have the ability to produce more competitively priced dairy products and provide more value to consumers, it is causing financial devastation for small farmers.
The graphic above uses data from the USDA to chart the rapid consolidation of the American dairy industry between 1992 and 2017.
The End of the Small Dairy Farmer?
In the U.S., the dairy industry is one of the fastest consolidating industries in comparison to almost all other agricultural sectors.
Between 1992 and 2017, small commercial farms with 10-99 cows saw an average decline of 70%. These farms accounted for 48.5% share of all U.S. milk cows in 1992. In 2017, that number stood at just 12.2%.
Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and the potential to compete in the international market.
|Share of U.S. milk cow inventory (by year)|
|1-9 milk cows||0.9%||0.7%||0.6%||0.4%||0.4%||0.4%|
|10-49 milk cows||19.5%||13.8%||9.2%||6.8%||5.9%||3.6%|
|50-99 milk cows||29%||24.5%||19.1%||13.8%||11.1%||8.6%|
|100-199 milk cows||19%||18%||15.4%||12.8%||10.6%||9.4%|
|200-499 milk cows||13.7%||15.3%||14.7%||13.8%||12%||12%|
|500-999 milk cows||8%||10.2%||12.2%||12.5%||11.3%||10.7%|
|>999 milk cows||9.9%||17.5%||28.8%||39.9%||48.7%||55.2%|
The Need For a Survival Strategy
While small dairy farmers simply cannot keep up with larger farms encroaching on their turf, they also have fluctuations in dairy prices to contend with. Milk prices fell in 2018, narrowing the gap between milk prices and feed costs so much that another wave of farm closures ensued.
To make matters worse, many small dairy farmers are close to retirement age, and according to the USDA, exits are more likely if the farm operator is 60 or older.
Despite the hardship facing small dairy farmers, analysts suggest that consumer backlash against large-scale production could present opportunities for small dairy farmers to create premium artisanal products. However, such initiatives would be entirely dependent on the state of the economy and where consumer’s values lie.
The Wider Implications
With milk production shifting to larger farms, a range of both direct and indirect impacts are being felt across the country.
For example, milk production is now predominantly focused in fewer states such as California and Wisconsin, which together accounted for almost 33% of all U.S. milk production in 2018.
In larger farms, the herds are typically confined to tight spaces— rather than grazing in pastures—making animal welfare an issue for many of these farms. Concern over waste contamination and air pollution also brings the environmental sustainability of larger farms into question as they come under more pressure to reduce their impact on the planet.
Looking beyond the production of milk, changing consumer preferences could result in the most transformative effects on both large and small scale dairy farmers.
While rising populations are increasing the demand for dairy, per capita milk consumption declined by 24% between 2000 and 2017 in the United States. Consequently, the largest dairy producer in the country, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in 2019, followed by another major milk producer, Borden Dairy, just two months later.
Experts claim that changing consumer preferences, along with competition from other beverage categories, are responsible for 90% of the total dairy decline.
No Country for Old Farms
The confluence of changing economics and an aging population of farmers has brought the U.S. dairy farming industry to a tipping point, and the near future is likely to bring a fresh wave of dairy farm closures.
I don’t see anything that would give them hope at this point. The best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.
– Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid
As smaller farms continue to disappear from America’s rural landscape, the impacts of consolidation will not only affect dairy farmers, but entire rural communities too.
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What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?
From wheat to cassavas, also known as yuca, here are the top cash crops in Africa and their share of global production.
What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?
Agriculture makes up nearly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy—a higher percentage than any other region worldwide.
From Nigeria to the fertile land across the East African Rift Valley, the continent is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.
Given the massive role of agriculture across the region, this infographic from Zainab Ayodimeji shows the most produced cash crops in Africa and their share of total global production.
The Top 20 Cash Crops in Africa
Cash crops, such as coffee or rice, are crops that are produced for a salable market.
With data from the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT), here are the most produced cash crops in Africa:
Tonnes Produced 2019
% of World Production
Rice, paddy (rice milled equivalent)
|Oil palm fruit||21.9M||5%|
|Groundnuts, with shell||16.6M||34%|
Cassava, also referred to as yuca, is the most produced cash crop by a wide margin. With nearly 200 million tonnes of it produced annually, Africa’s production of cassava makes up a majority (63%) of the global total.
While cassavas are not well known in the Western world, they feed 800 million people globally. Cassavas are an essential root vegetable that has similar uses to potatoes.
Sugar cane, maize, and yams are also significant cash crops.
Notably, Africa’s yam production is 97% of the global total. West Africa is known as the “yam belt,” covering Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. With over 60 million people across the yam belt directly or indirectly involved in its production, yam cultivation is an important component of the region’s economic vitality.
Agriculture Composition of GDP, by Region
While agriculture plays a significant role in Africa’s GDP, what role does it play across other regions around the world?
Like Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is a major part of South Asia’s economy. India produces nearly 24% of rice around the world, while Bangladesh produces over 7% of total global production. Meanwhile, over 14% of the global wheat supply is also produced by India.
On the other hand, agriculture makes up just 1% of North America’s GDP. The number of farms in the U.S. peaked in the 1930s and has sharply declined from almost 7 million to 2 million in 2020.
The Future of Africa’s Cash Crops
Despite Africa’s expansive agriculture sector, there remain bottlenecks to productivity.
In light of these challenges, several technological advances have the potential to improve farmers’ bottom lines. For instance, precision technology measures rainfall, soil information, and soil productivity. At the same time, remote sensing technology can provide information on weather and climate.
This, coupled with the majority of the world’s uncultivated arable land, presents a significant opportunity for cash crops going forward. By one estimate, cereal and grain production has the potential to increase threefold.
Visualizing the World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age
How much has the world’s land use changed over the last 10,000 years, and how have forests been impacted?
Visualizing The World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age
How much of Earth used to be covered by forests, and what portion is covered today?
The effects of deforestation on the climate are already being seen and felt, and these repercussions are expected to increase with time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.
As today’s graphic using data from Our World in Data highlights, the world’s forests have been shrinking since the last ice age at an increasingly rapid pace.
Earth’s Surface Area: 10,000 Years Ago
To examine the deforestation situation properly, it helps to understand Earth’s total available surface area. After all, our world can feel massive when glancing at maps or globes. But of the roughly 51 billion hectares in total surface area on Earth, more than 70% is taken up by oceans.
What’s left is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which is habitable. Here is how the land was allocated 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.
Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- Barren land (19% or 2.8bn ha)—Includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks, and dunes
- Glaciers (10% or 1.5bn ha)—The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica
Habitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- Forest (57% or 6bn ha)—Includes tropical, temperate, and boreal forests
- Grassland (42% or 4.6bn ha)—Wild grassland and shrubs
- Freshwater (1% or <510M ha)—Lakes and rivers
By 2018, forests had receded to just 4 billion hectares. What happened?
Forests and Grassland Recede for Agriculture
Once humans figured out how to cultivate plants and livestock for regular sources of food, they needed land to use.
For centuries, the loss of greenery was relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares each of forest and grassland, replaced by around 900 million hectares of land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.
But industrialization in the 1800s rapidly sped up the process.
|Percentage of Habitable Land||1700||1800||1900||1950||2018|
While half of Earth’s loss of forests occurred from 10,000 years ago to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Part of this loss, about 100 million hectares, has occurred in the more recent time period of 2000 to 2018.
The biggest culprit?
Though urban land use has rapidly grown, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of habitable land now being used for grazing livestock. Most of that land came at first from repurposed grasslands, but forests have also been cleared along the way.
Where Will Food Come From?
Countries pledging to stop deforestation have two major hurdles to solve: financial and survival.
Firstly, there are many companies, jobs, and economies that rely on producing and marketing goods made from forests, such as lumber.
But more importantly, the world’s rising use of land for crops and agriculture reflects our rapidly growing population. In 1900, the global population numbered just 1.6 billion people. By 2021, it had exceeded 7.9 billion, with hundreds of millions still affected by food shortages every day.
How do you feed so many without needing more land? Meat’s extremely large footprint makes prioritizing crops more attractive, and research into other solutions like lab-grown meat and grazing erosion prevention is ongoing.
As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it’s likely that countries, companies, and people will have to embrace many different solutions at once.
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