Our demand for the white liquid that makes our cornflakes soggy has grown exponentially over the past few decades and like so many foods it has become thoroughly undervalued and over consumed. Dairy farms are being blamed for much of the climate disaster that we currently face and has become a key factor for the growth in veganism.
So, why has milk become such a huge part of our diet?
Supermarkets, Breakfast Cereals and Coffee Shops
It’s well accepted that supermarkets compete to have the lowest priced milk as they know that consumers ‘pop in’ for it and end up buying other products. You know the kind of thing……gone in for milk, came out with a flat screen TV. Considering the huge array of non-food products that supermarkets could get into a price war over, it seems pretty unfair to the farmers and the animals to choose milk. Then there’s the other big players, the breakfast cereal manufacturers. Now as a nutritionist I am aware that there are some very good cereals out there, made from wholegrains and often fortified with iron and other useful nutrients but they are few and far between these days. Walking down the cereal aisle there is a huge amount of low fibre, super-sweetened, chocolate-based cereals that are being specifically marketed to children under the guise that they are wholesome because you eat them with milk. The recent growth of coffee shops has also been a key driver of milk consumption with many now selling more milk and cream-based versions where coffee is actually the smallest ingredient.
The Lactose Enigma
All mammalian milks, including breastmilk, contain the carbohydrate lactose. It’s made up of glucose and galactose molecules bound together which are broken down by an enzyme called lactase found in the small intestine. Most humans stop producing this enzyme when they are weaned as babies, but Western Europeans have actually evolved to continue making lactase because of our dairy-rich diet.
Historically, populations that had sheep and cattle would mainly use the milk to make fermented foods, such as cheese, yoghurt and kefir. The beneficial bacteria used to make these foods digest the milk sugar as part of the fermentation process and so the end products are naturally low in lactose. Similarly, the lactose-digesting bacteria that exist as part of a healthy gut microbiome will do the same thing with small quantities of undigested lactose that reach the large bowel. Therefore, it’s highly likely that being able to produce the lactase enzyme into adulthood is to help us tolerate small quantities of milk and dairy foods rather than consume vast quantities of liquid milk on a daily basis.
Cows Belong in Fields
Cows are ruminants that need to eat grass out in fields during the good weather, and forage (hay, haylage, silage) when kept indoors during the wet and cold months. The huge demand for milk and dairy-based foods has been one of the prime factors in the intensification of dairy farming with a worrying trend towards ‘mega dairies’ where cows are kept indoors ALL year round and milked 3 times a day causing severe emaciation, lameness and mastitis. Zero grazing relies heavily on cereal and soya-based feeds which is a key factor behind global deforestation and can cause major pollution to waterways because of the high density of animals kept in such systems. For each tonne of milk produced from intensive dairy, there is a net loss to the world of around one tonne of food available for human consumption.
But cows, if farmed sustainably, could still produce a healthy, nutritious food whilst helping tackle the climate emergency. According to Benedict Macdonald’s book Cornerstones (2022) “simply by moving, eating and defecating, cattle justify their role as ecosystem engineers”. They have a profoundly positive effect on biodiversity; increasing populations of plants, insects, birds, amphibians and mammals. For example; swallows and swifts follow behind cows, feeding on insects that the cows disturb (www.pastureforlife.org) . Trampling the ground breaks down coarse vegetation and creates hollows in the ground for natterjack toads (Land Healer by Jake Fiennes, 2022). The RSPB reserve at Frampton Marsh use Belted Galloways to graze the marsh grass between nesting seasons, this keeps it short and provides the ideal habitat for curlews, lapwings and redshanks (Grazing for Nature by Nick Gates RSPB magazine 2022). Not forgetting that the dung produced is a natural fertiliser, reducing the need for expensive synthetic versions. More birds and insects will feed on common crop pests reducing the need for pesticides for that neighbouring field of cereal or rapeseed. The traditional system of rotational farming is ideally suited to using grazing animals and provides better security for farmers compared to the monoculture system.
So, what choice do consumers have?
Less is Definitely More
Essentially, we need to wrap our heads around how to eat well for our physical and mental health but without it costing the earth. According to the ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’ report from the Sustainable Food Trust (www.sustainablefoodtrust.org June, 2022) if we are to change our farming practices to a more secure and sustainable system there needs to be a 25% reduction in milk production. Which means we all need to stop guzzling the stuff and start using dairy foods like cheese, yoghurt, cream, crème fraiche and ice-cream as high value foods to be eaten less often and in smaller amounts.
Consider supporting cow-with-calf farmers like David and Wilma Finlay who run The Ethical Dairy, where calves are kept with their mothers rather than being separated from birth. The milk yield is lower, but the animals live longer, happier lives and they use the milk to make gorgeous cheese available from their online shop (www.TheEthicalDairy.co.uk). They explain in their book, A Dairy Story, that this agroecological dairy system is financially viable too.
“To collect, process and deliver to the retailer the cow-with-calf, regeneratively produced milk from up to 20 small farms versus a single, 2000 cow industrial farm could add about 10p per litre to the shelf price”
That seems like amazing value for money to me. Isn’t it time for supermarkets to start supporting British dairy farmers and help educate consumers on what is the best milk for them, their families, their farmers and our planet.