Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Now the milk debate is well established and it becomes more interesting and controversial each year it seems. The ads promoting alternative milk or substitutes are more commonplace and the pressure on big dairy to curb their emissions for the climate crisis is starting to gain more and more traction. I have a double vested interest on two fronts coming from a family of dairy farmers and being in food all my working life so I make no bones about where I stand. However, all sides need to be listened to and this is the only way forward in any debate.
So we have been keeping animals for milk over thousands of years and it’s the first thing we eat or drink and so much food derives from it that you might imagine the world could not exist without it. Some research would argue that as we grow up we need it less and less and as adults consuming dairy produce it might even be detrimental. Lactose intolerance is definitely on the rise too so what does all this mean for the future of farming and the food industries that rely on the steady flow of milk and cream.
I recall hearing the clink of the milk man dropping off the bottles as a child and the odd one getting its foil cap pecked open by a blackbird before it was taken in for breakfast. I remember how milk marketing promoted it as the healthiest drink we could take and to this day I still see some customers in restaurants with a pint glass of it with their meal. Now milk has become very cheap too as supermarkets drive such a hard bargain for producers, the dairy farmers need serious numbers of cattle to make a buck. The scientists are saying that there has to be far less cows or the earth is going to implode. It’s a serious dilemma we face.
The bad news for us to process though is the simple but daunting stat that there are around eight million dairy farmers worldwide with a billion people living off them all the while producing 800 million tonnes of milk annually from their cows, buffalo, sheep, goats and camels. Now that is some sentence to digest before we look at the future of milk. Some farmers have just a single cow, others 10,000 or more. To put it in consumer context we drink around 160 litres of it a year in Ireland on average from all its forms. Globally roughly a quarter of the milk is consumed in Europe, the same again in Asia, then only half as much in North America and the rest of the world uses up the remainder. So how on earth do we just take all that milk off the table?
We simply cannot is the straight answer. The alternative choices to milk are perfectly acceptable and deserve their place on the supermarket shelf though they cannot be sold as milk per se. Consumers who buy it really do like or need them but it is still the tiniest drop compared to the vast ocean of animal milk. I have tasted them and some are better than others but for my personal choice I still prefer the original if purely on the taste test.
Sales of animal milk are decreasing for sure in the advanced west but the rest of world truly depends on it for sustenance and income. The innocent cows do not know or care that their belching or flatulence is causing such a stink in the climate debate never mind the ethical and dairy debates. All those green fields cannot just be turned into crops overnight either. The economics of global agriculture are far more complex. Generations of farmers both new, old and third world have families to feed and it will be many generations before any worthy impact is made to change the status quo. Such is life.
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Milking parlour photo courtesy of Kevin Meade