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The dairy dilemma: what needs to change and why?

The dairy dilemma: what needs to change and why?

A Tortoise ThinkIn in partnership with

The focus of this Cop27 ThinkIn was to consider what needs to change in order to align our dairy production and consumption practices with a 1.5C world. The contributors for this ThinkIn were Sally Smith, Global Director Sustainability & ESG, Upfield; Dr Susan Chomba, Director, Vital Landscapes, The World Resources Institute; and Lou Hunt, Manager International Environment, Ministry for Primary Industries, New Zealand. There was also input from the audience in Sharm El-Sheikh and from the online-audience in the Zoom chat. Watch again here.

Date: Tuesday 8 November 2022

Host: Jeevan Vasagar, Climate Editor, Tortoise Media

Attendees: Ten in person, 75 online

Select points from the chat:

“Bottom line ‘consumer led capitalism’ and the industries which surround them are the cause of most of our woe and inequalities. Satisfying need instead of creating wants, desires and artificial needs would cure a lot of the problems we have in economically developed countries.” – Graham Andrews

“It’s interesting to think about how the British government tried to influence the population’s diet choices during WW2. This is a possible starting point for shifting attitudes.” – Vanessa Woolf

“Taxing meat and dairy products to reflect the cost to the environment would be one lever, at the same time as education about the joys and benefits of a plant-based diet. Also ending subsidies for unsustainable meat production and investing that in sustainable arable, agro-forestry and rewilding would be good.” – Olivia Sprinkel 

Dairy has become a growing topic of concern in the conversation around aligning our dietary choices to a 1.5 degree world. 

It’s well understood that western dairy consumption practices are incompatible with keeping within planetary boundaries. Meanwhile, the Global South still faces serious malnutrition challenges – approximately 30 per cent of children consume too little protein in Central Africa and South Asia.

Moving from an understanding of these issues, to action, is complicated and controversial. Our diets are deeply personal and political and what we “choose” to eat is often dictated by larger, interconnecting forces outside our control. 

It is estimated that 77 per cent of the world’s farmland is used to graze animals or to produce crops to feed to animals. In Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, it is recommended that if the UK cut its meat and dairy intake by one-third by 2050, a fifth of our farmland could be restored to nature or low-intensity farming, which would help conserve wildlife and create carbon sinks. 

By the numbers:

  • Agriculture is the number one source of human-caused methane.
  • Cattle are responsible for 77 per cent of these agricultural-based methane emissions. 
  • There has been a 30 per cent increase in dairy consumption over the last ten years.
  • Meat consumption is projected to increase by 30 per cent in Africa by 2030.

Throughout the course of the ThinkIn session, co-created with Upfield, a number of key themes were explored:

Upending the systems is a necessary and urgent task

At Cop26, 80 countries signed an agreement to reduce their methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. In agriculture, methane-reduction strategies include adjusting ruminant diets, changing feed additives, and manure management. 

Sally Smith called for “upending the system” and warned that our current modus operandi “needs to change trajectory otherwise we will be in a whole heap of trouble”. She remarked that “farmers are brilliant at responding to what the systems ask them to do”, however, government intervention is required in order to help them make a greener transition.

Lou Hunt, representing the government of New Zealand, spoke about their current consultation on introducing a levy for farmers who meet the threshold for herd size and fertiliser use by 2025. Their consultation involved engaging with farmers, Māori indigenous communities, businesses and policy makers, in order to co-create an equitable and climate-sensitive path forward.  

Nuance is needed 

Audience participants, Patrick Holden and Adele Jones, of the Sustainable Food Trust, called for greater nuance in the discussion, and promoted the concept of “true cost of accounting”. 

Agriculture is a heterogeneous industry – different methods of production produce a wide range of impacts. As such, in order to have a productive discussion around meat and dairy consumption and production practices, it is important to distinguish these differences and not paint every farm with the same brush.

The alternative dairy proposition works for some, and not others

Concerns about planetary and human health are driving the consumption of plant-based dairy alternatives, such as almond, oat and soy milk. 

The alternative dairy market is expected to grow 16 per cent  annually until 2027. In 2021, the industry was valued at $20 billion, of which almost $18 billion comes from plant-based milk.

But it should not be assumed that the alternative dairy adoption in the West can be replicated in the Global South. Dr Susan Chomba noted that it is important to question whether alternative dairy products are “acceptable social and cultural norms”. She described that for the Global South, “the luxury of having alternative protein is not there, as 200 million people every year do not have sufficient food to eat”, with women and children being particularly vulnerable to this issue. 

Concluding remarks

What is considered to be the “dilemma” within the dairy industry will look different depending on who you are and where you live. Similarly, the answers to “what needs to change and why” will be different across regions in the world. What is clear, however, is that improved collaboration across the food system is needed to tackle the interconnected challenges of planetary and human health.