Dairy-free

Consumers are turning to soy, almond and coconut milk out of health and environmental concerns.

Remember when dairy consumption was demonised alongside meat for its impact on climate change? But in the past five years, the spotlight on climate-friendly consumption has shifted away from milk,

butter and yoghurt – and rightly so, according to Sue Dibb, the co-ordinator
of the Eating Better campaign. “Campaigns have tended to focus on reducing meat rather than dairy because meat has the highest greenhouse gas footprint and many people eat more than is good for health.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calculates that the livestock sector represents about 14.5% of all human-induced emissions. Beef and cattle milk production account for the majority of emissions within this sector, contributing 41% and 19% of total emissions respectively.

On a UK level, milk and dairy products make up about 15% of total food intake, which is in line with Food Standards Agency recommendations. The same can’t be said for meat: 58% of men and 23% of women eat more meat than the government guideline of 70g red meat per day.

So the key issue with dairy is not consumption but reducing the impact of production. And the sector has responded well. Dairy is responsible for less than 2% of total UK emissions, according to Dairy UK, “principally because action has been taken to ensure that farms and production systems continue to improve and become more efficient”.

In December, the industry group published an update of progress against its 2008 Dairy Roadmap. This showed that:

  • Energy efficiency has improved by 16%
  • More than three-quarters (78%) of dairy farmers are taking action to reduce greenhouse gases through, for example, improved feed quality and digestibility and manure management
  • The target of 15% renewable energy uptake has been met.

Impressive stuff. But more capital investment is needed to hit 2020 targets to cut more carbon, produce more renewable energy and embrace low-carbon innovation. That won’t be easy if the clouds over milk price linger on, as Mark Driscoll, the head of food at Forum for the Future, explained. “There are simple and scalable technology solutions out there that farmers and producers can invest in, which help to increase yield and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“However, central to this is ensuring that farmers and producers are being paid a fair price for milk production, in order to be able to make those investments. More needs to be done to ensure farmers are able to cover their costs, and also to incentivise their shift to more sustainable production,” he adds.

Let’s not forget the manufacturers. During the milk price crisis fingers have been pointed up the supply chain and back down again, with processors often caught in the middle. Businesses are being squeezed and this could mean that some look at alternative business models.

The ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever, is about to launch a dairy-free range in the US (it’ll be coming to the UK a little later). Mintel expert Alex Beckett said in a report last year that if any brand can make this work, it’s Ben & Jerry’s.

Made with a blend of coconut and almond milk, the product range could make serious inroads into the company’s emissions – 40% of its footprint comes from dairy. But it’s not just the carbon-conscious who will want a scoop – the dairy-free market grew by more than 15% in 2014, according to Mintel. What’s more, 15% of UK consumers now avoid dairy or lactose.

Products such as soy milk and almond milk have been popular for years, said Driscoll. What has changed more recently is that these products are starting to be valued by consumers not simply as milk alternatives but as products that taste good, have high nutritional value and a lower emissions footprint.

But let’s not forget the benefits of dairy, he added. “Milk and dairy products play an important role in a healthy, balanced diet, as they are good sources of protein, calcium and vitamins – and the fat contained in milk is also a beneficial source of calories for children.”

There have been battles across Europe as the dairy sector defends its corner against the rise of plant-based alternatives. Dairy UK said that “these products sometimes use terminology that could be misleading or confusing to consumers by downplaying the health and nutritional benefits of dairy”.

There’s also an environmental consideration. Milk alternatives can have their own sustainability problems: 80% of the world’s almond harvest comes from drought-stricken California, for instance. “We want to see food companies develop more climate-friendly products and menus,” Dibb said. “In doing so, it’s important [they] look at the whole sustainability and nutrition profile, not just at greenhouse gas emissions.”

All five of the UK’s major dairy processing companies have a programme to monitor and reduce carbon emissions. Slimming them down using dairy-free is an attractive option, but how these products fit into a truly sustainable diet is more complex.

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