Is ‘mylk’ a threat to British dairy?

The growing trend for a more vegan or plant-based lifestyle has seen a booming trade in alternatives to milk, causing inevitable concern in the dairy sector. Should we be worried? Sarah Kidby reports.

Market research company Mintel suggests nearly a quarter of British consumers (23 per cent) used plant-based alternatives to milk in a three-month study period last year. But, while products such as oat milk, almond milk and relative newcomer pea milk – which hit UK supermarkets last year – appear to be in vogue, AHDB figures suggest most consumers don’t see them as a replacement for milk.

Senior consumer insight manager, Susie Stannard said: “Approximately 60 per cent of dairy alternatives are consumed along with a dairy product – whether that be a cheese and ham panini with an almond milk latte, or margarine in a cheese sandwich.

“We know that 98 per cent of households still buy real milk,” she added. “We’ve seen around 0.6 per cent decline in liquid dairy milk in the past year but that has come from people consuming fewer hot drinks – particularly black tea with a splash of milk – rather than a conscious turning away from dairy. Ironically, because we had such a poor summer, milk occasions grew in the short term due to people having more cuppas.”

There may even be opportunities for arable farmers in the future. Susie added: “Oat milk in particular and oat products such as porridge, generally have been experiencing growth in recent years due to strong health perceptions around heart health and the benefits of fibre.”

‘Health halo’

Despite the common perception that vegan equals healthier and more environmentally friendly, a recent survey of seasonal hot drinks, carried out by Action on Sugar, raised concerns about lack of labelling and a ‘health halo’ around some products. Starbucks’ Oat Milk Venti Latte was found to contain over 7tsp of sugar and 350 calories, compared to the same drink with semi-skimmed milk, which had 5tsp of sugar and 168 calories.

Campaign director Katharine Jenner, said: “Customers looking for dairy alternatives could be shocked to learn that many coffee shops and cafes use pre-sweetened alternative milks, as the nutrition information is often very difficult to find.”

Some nutritionists have raised concerns about whether alternative milks supply the correct level of nutrients. Rhiannon Lambert, founder of Harley Street clinic Rhitrition, was quoted by the Telegraph as saying dairy milk is “superior” from a nutritional perspective.

“The only alternative milk which has a nutritional profile with almost as much to offer [as dairy milk] is soya milk, which also contains a fair amount of protein,” she added. “But, in general, alternative milks don’t do much to bulk up your nutritional intake.”

Environmental impacts

While a study by the University of Oxford last year suggested that, on a global scale, dairy milk production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use than rice, soy, oat and almond milk, UK livestock production is among the most sustainable in the world. Milk production accounts for just 2.7 per cent of UK emissions and the dairy industry reduced emissions by 24 per cent from 2008–2015, according to Dairy UK’s chief executive Dr Judith Bryans. British dairy cattle are predominantly rain-fed – unlike the crops used for many alternative products – and they also play a part in carbon sequestration and putting valuable nutrients back into the soil, avoiding soil erosion.

NFU chief dairy adviser James Osman said the carbon footprint of British milk is 60 per cent lower than the global average, and noted that it is important to consider other factors alongside GHG emissions.

“On paper, an alternative milk drink may have a lower carbon footprint, but it may not contain as many beneficial nutrients, so it cannot be compared like-for-like,” he explained. “With this in mind, we encourage the public to consider the carbon footprint of alternative milk products imported from abroad and buy British dairy where possible to help the agriculture industry achieve its ambition of reaching net zero emissions by 2040.”

The future for dairy

Although the dairy industry is often unfairly maligned in the media with regard to climate change, it will still be necessary for it – and other industries – to continue reducing its environmental impact going forward. A recent report – Dairy Vision for 2030 by Kite Consulting – predicts that a 30 per cent reduction in GHG emissions can be achieved in the next 10 years through increasing milk yield per cow, increasing feed conversion efficiency, using technology and breeding to deliver better health and fertility, and making better use of nitrogen to reduce NO₂.

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