As American dairy farmers dump milk due to overproduction – a whopping 78 million gallons so far this year in just the Midwest and the Northeast, or 86 percent more from the same period last year – Big Dairy is looking for someone to blame, and it's found its scapegoat in the flourishing plant-based milk sector.
The evidence of Big Dairy's fear is clear, from the proposed Dairy Pride Act, which would forbid the plant-based sector's use of words like milk, yogurt, and cheese on their products, to last month's annual conference of the American Dairy Products Institute and the American Butter Institute, where several industry leaders voiced their concerns over plant-based milk and dairy, including Mike McClosky, co-founder and CEO of Select Milk Producers, who called plant-based milk “a serious threat” to the industry.
But here’s the thing – plant-based milk isn’t to blame for Big Dairy's decline.
While, according to the Nielsen Company, sales of almond milk alone grew 250 percent from 2011 to 2016, the dairy industry has been struggling for decades, according to market research firm Mintel, but this is linked not to the growing popularity of plant-based milk per se, according to Bloomberg, but rather to an increased availability of other drink options, including juices, sodas, and sports drinks. And Americans are also trading in their milk by the glass for the ooey-gooey kind: cheese sales have skyrocketed while fluid milk has been on the decline.
The plant-based dairy sector's success is due to a number of factors, including remarkable recent innovations, from milks made from new nuts and seeds to better, more delicious plant-based cheeses.
“There's a variety of reasons that people are seeking out plant based alternatives,” says Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant Based Foods Association. “I think there's increasing recognition that our industrial animal agriculture system is broken, and a lot of people don't want to participate in that, whether it's for reasons of cruelty to animals or the incredible destruction of the environment due to it.”
One thing is certain: it’s not a matter of competition between animal- and plant-based milks, and Big Dairy calling plant-based milk a “threat” is misguided at best.
“The decline of fluid milk consumption has been happening for many decades,” explains Simon. “USDA data shows that long before the rise of even soy milk, let alone almond milk, which is certainly a more recent phenomenon. There's zero connection.”
So Who's The Real Threat?
The real competitor for Big Dairy might not be plant-based at all. After all, consumers who are sticking to dairy milk for the long haul have many more options than they used to, particularly in the realm of ethical dairy.
“The dairy industry likes to paint this picture of milk still comes from a farmer alone with his cow, and it's so far from that image of yesterday,” explains Simon. “I just think that we should remember that industrialized milk production is far from natural.”
Organic and grass-fed dairy operations are a stark departure from conventional farms, which keep animals indoors, feed them GMO corn and soy, and medicate them with regular doses of antibiotics, practices that Theresa Marquez, Organic Valley’s Chief Marketing Executive, notes reduce the lifespan of the animals.
“The average cow in that setup isn't good for more than three lactations, whereas you'll go to an organic farm, you'll find cows that are eight to ten years old," explains Marquez. "Letting a cow live its natural lifespan is what I would call ethical treatment of animals.”
Organic milk is on the rise, with a projected growth rate of 14.62 percent in the U.S. alone over the next five years, according to Allied Market Research. Demand is so high that Organic Valley and General Mills announced a partnership late last year to add 3,000 acres of organic dairy production to General Mills' source pool over the next three years.
“As an organic cooperative, we are deeply invested in ethical treatment of animals which is one of the reason we ask our farmers to increase grazing,” explains Marquez. “It is a simple fact – cows love to be outside on grass.”
Grass not only makes for healthier cows; it makes for healthier milk: grass-fed milk is significantly richer in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk according to a study in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, and it also has a one-to-one omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, as compared to the two-to-one ratio of most organic milk or conventional milk's eight-to-one ratio.
“It’s really fantastic if you’re trying to lower your 6, and it’s almost 90 percent higher in omega 3s than conventional milk,” says Marquez.
The healthfulness of ethical, grass-fed dairy like this is truly unparalleled if you’re looking to consume a non-plant-based product, and according to Marquez, the two markets can coexist peacefully.
“We are not against plant-based beverages,” she says. “I do not think it is necessary for our cooperative to be threatened by plant based beverages but I can see how conventional dairy is.”
So if the conventional industry wants to go to war, a better opponent might be ethical dairy... but either way, it's going to be a tough fight for Big Dairy to win.
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