The dairy sector insists the nutrition provided by milk and milk products justifies its significant environmental impacts.
Studies on the climate effects of meat and dairy production and campaigns for ‘meat-free Mondays’ appear to have shaken the industry. It insists better environmental management is the solution, rather than reduced consumption.
Peter Dawson, policy director at dairyuk, told a conference run by the trade association on 27 January that there were “inherent uncertainties in defining a sustainable diet”.
For a start, the environmental and health impacts of alternatives, such as imported soya milk, which has to be fortified with nutrients, need to be taken into account, he said.
Some dairy cows already eat soya-based feed, but Mr Dawson said it would be easier to change this than the nation’s diet. The effect on jobs and food security also need to be considered, he said.
According to Judith Bryans, director of the Dairy Council, dairy products provide 17% of the protein eaten by UK adults and add a range of nutrients in a readily absorbed form. These include 42% of adult calcium intake and 39% of vitamin B12. And there is still a shortfall in some of these nutrients among parts of the population, she maintains.
However, the extent to which these concerns apply to most of the UK population is debatable. The country as a whole eats too much saturated fat, of which dairy products are a source.
And the NHS puts the number of malnourished people at about two million, or 3% of the population. Many of these are ill, elderly or have eating disorders and could be given special dietary advice.
The carbon impacts of animal farming are considerable. In 2008, UK farms produced greenhouse gases equivalent to 48 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 8% of the national total (ENDS Report 428, pp 38-42). About 40% came from the digestive systems and manures of ruminants such as sheep or cows. Cows and sheep also need more feed to produce a kilogram of meat than pigs and chickens.
The Committee on Climate Change said last year that greenhouse gas emissions from farming could be reduced by 40% by halving national consumption of meat and dairy products (ENDS Report 431, p 27). It suggested this might be achieved through taxation or by supermarkets altering the range of products they offer.
A more recent Swedish study suggests a tax on meat and milk of €60/tco2 would instead cut emissions from European agriculture by about 7%. If the land made available by lower demand for those products was used for biofuel production, the reduction could be six times as great.
Perhaps reassuringly for the dairy industry, the authors suggest much of the benefit could be achieved by taxing meat from ruminants alone.
WWF has also done work in this area and is adamant diets must change. At the start of February it published a diet, Livewell 2020, drawn up with nutritionists from the University of Aberdeen. This still meets Food Standards Agency’s nutritional recommendations but has a 25% lower carbon footprint than the average UK diet.
The diet allows for one portion of meat five days a week and fish on the remaining two days, but the meat only makes up only 4% of the diet. The current norm is 15%.
The amount of dairy remains the same at 15% but WWF warns more radical changes would be needed to achieve a 70% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2050. It would still be possible to eat some meat and dairy produce but only if other foods had a particularly low carbon footprint.
Richard Perkins, senior commodities adviser at the NGO, admitted dietary changes would be difficult to bring about within the current policy context. But he also notes that the environmental impacts of dairy go beyond its greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy farms are a significant source of water pollution in some parts of the UK, for example.
Even if there is an argument for a change in consumption, a fall in UK demand for dairy products could have unintended consequences, argues dairyuk’s Mr Dawson.
What farmers produce is largely determined by market forces and they could switch instead to beef, export their milk, or reduce their efficiency. If demand were to increase again at a later date, it might be met by imported products that are no more climate friendly, he suggested.
Case for dairy expansion
Indeed, Rob Lillywhite, an agricultural researcher from the University of Warwick, who also spoke at the dairyuk event, thinks the country should consider expanding its dairy output. The UK’s mild, wet climate is suited to dairy farming and specialising in this could help meet the government’s aim of contributing to global food security, he said.
Ploughing up grasslands to replace them with arable production also releases greenhouse gases, Dr Lillywhite noted. It can take 10-100 years to see a net reduction in emissions.
The dairy industry’s main strategy for reducing its emissions is the Dairy Roadmap, formerly the Milk Roadmap, agreed with the environment department (DEFRA) in 2008 (ENDS Report 400, pp 25-26).
Its aims include a 20-30% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions of UK dairy farms by 2020 and a progress report is due shortly. This is also likely to include plans to extend some of the targets.
• WWF and other campaign groups have called for stronger commitment from the government to sustainable food procurement. New Government Buying Standards circulated by DEFRA in recent weeks make no mention of sustainable palm oil or soya, for example, and do not address the issue of meat and dairy consumption.
Compliance with the standards is only mandatory for central government departments. Schools, hospitals and care homes are much bigger buyers.