Milk has been around for more than 10.000 years, but its position is under discussion more than ever. Where did it all start? And what does the future of milk look like?
Although milk has been a valuable source of nutrients for more than 10.000 years, its future has been under fierce discussion over the last few years. The challenge of providing quality food for an ever-growing population has led to a re-evaluation of everything we know and do.
Increasing the efficiency of food production in a sustainable way demands significant reforms in the way we produce our food and the choices we make as a consumer. What role will dairy play in the future of global food production?
Cows are magical creatures. Their ability to convert useless grass into something so rich in protein, vitamins and minerals was discovered thousands of years ago. This was especially helpful in regions where no other crops would grow. Nomads would bring domesticated cows along on their journey as a “mobile vending machine” of fresh, raw milk. It was an easier source of protein compared to hunting and protected against possible crop failures due to adverse weather.
The lactose, however, was hard to digest for people, but when the early dairy regions (Europe and Middle-East) developed the ability to digest lactose by consuming milk, the benefits were many. Dairy is considered a “complete food”, meaning we would be able to live off milk alone if we had to.
All good so far! Europeans and Middle-Eastern cultures were able to produce and consume milk produced by their own cows. A perfect example of local for local and the ultimate form of fresh food. But, with a growing population the need for more efficient and affordable food (and other goods) increased. Craftsmanship and self-sufficiency made way for efficiency and economies of scale; the industrial revolution.
Based on the theory of comparative advantage (see our previous blog!) companies would focus on what they do best. People would move from the countryside to the city and work for companies in factories. With the money generated by this labor, food could simply be bought. However, with people living in cities, the raw milk had to be transported from the countryside, leading to an increase in serious diseases among which tuberculosis due to milk consumption.
In 1862 this was changed by a French chemist named Louis Pasteur. He found that when heated, harmful germs and microorganisms were killed, preventing their growth and development of harmful diseases. This was a game-changer for milk production. For the first time in history, milk could be produced on a large scale. This was the beginning of dairy farming as we know it today and the method of pasteurisation is still today’s standard.
This led to the concept of dairy farming as we know it today. Farmers leverage their land, knowledge and hard work to produce the milk needed by the world’s consumers. And they have done an amazing job. In the last 50 years, the milk production per cow has doubled due to improving techniques and better knowledge about the craft. And in the last 10 years, they managed to keep up these numbers while using 21% less land, 30% less water and 20% less fuel. The industry of dairy farming alone provides over half a million jobs in the US, EU, New Zealand and Australia.
The production of dairy has been anything but a walk in the park. The different milk producing regions are all facing their own challenges, divided over different areas:
The most simple and universal development is the profitability of milk production. The average “farmgate” (prices paid for raw milk delivered to a processor) prices have increased over the last 10 years, but the cost of production has seen a steeper increase. Running a dairy farm is serious business and today, different skills are needed to be successful compared to 20 years ago. Technology can help to bring down the required amount of man-hours, increasing efficiency. However these investments are steep, and the payback period is uncertain in today’s sentiment. Banks are more reluctant to finance production growth due to uncertainty about future earnings.
The above-mentioned uncertainties have been largely inflicted by political decisions. In the Netherlands, farmers were incentivized to ramp up production and increase efficiency to match the growing population and demand for dairy products. Today the opposite is true, expansion is not possible, production is restricted by emission quota and plans are being made to expropriate farmers of their land in order to create room for housing and biodiversity. In the US, subsidies are making up the majority of the dairy farm income. A change in regulations or a different political direction could pose immediate threats. Also in Oceania, the effects of intensive dairy farming are taking their toll on the land’s resources.
The largest dilemma of all. The world is in need of efficiently produced food, but the risk of efficiency is the exhaustion of the world’s resources. Major cooperatives have invested heavily in sustainable milk production. Not only by improving the carbon footprint and endorsing biodiversity, but also by providing a better living for farmers and sourcing the input for milk production in a sustainable way. Sharing knowledge and inventing new technologies could help accelerate the sustainability of dairy production, especially in less developed countries around the world.
Making the “right” choice has become more difficult than ever before. Dairy is viewed as a complete, but resource-heavy food choice. In preparation for writing this blog, we looked up some comparisons between milk and other dairy alternatives. It’s very hard to find reliable numbers and typically a comparison only tells half the story. Sure, the greenhouse gas emissions of soy production are much lower than dairy production, but how do we weigh the impact on the essential rainforests in this equation? Also, when compared based on a per gram protein base, the production of dairy is actually quite water-efficient. But numbers are not deciding consumer perception, headlines are. And those headlines have not been very favorable the last 5 years.
We have seen the dairy world change dramatically during the industrial revolution. This model has been sophisticated and refined and brought us where we are today. But as in many industries, the current model will not bring us further. Industries need to change, methods revolutionized, concepts re-designed. Luckily, innovation and technology will help the dairy industry thrive in the future! Below are a few examples of amazing innovations:
By making use of additives and re-designed feed formulas, the greenhouse gas emissions of dairy farming can be drastically reduced. We see innovations popping up all around the dairy value chain to reduce emissions while maintaining the cow’s milk yield. Next to the established dairy companies, startups play an important role in this development as well. Technology can help in providing insights into the greenhouse gas emissions of different dairy products and producers.
A cow in the second-largest dairy-producing country (the USA, no.1 is India) is producing 9 times more milk than a cow in the third-largest dairy-producing country (Pakistan). This illustrates the huge potential for global milk output. It starts with knowledge and education. With the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, technology can help farmers in making the right choices. Sensors allow you to track your cows, monitor their moves and prevent illness. Some of the solutions even work with voice recognition and a speaking interface, tackling the problem of illiteracy among many farmers in developing countries. “Herd improvement as a service”, accessible for everyone around the globe!
Another innovation is the one of “synthetic dairy”, producing milk out of grass, but without a cow. By using the cow’s genetics, grass can actually be converted into real dairy protein and fat. “Hacking DNA” used to cost billions of dollars, whereas now, thanks to Moore’s law it’s only a few thousands. This will allow us to produce real milk and cheese, without the “use” of an animal!
Sharing knowledge is essential in feeding the world. Major food and dairy companies are actively expanding towards growth regions. Not to ride the wave of increasing demand, but to help the local production grow efficiently supported by their decades of knowledge and experience. We can achieve more when we work together!
Selling products locally is on the rise again. A dairy farmer would deliver most of its milk to the cooperative or processor, but also invests in small-scale cheese, yoghurt or ice cream production equipment. The return of these direct to consumer sales are much higher than the farmgate price paid by the processor. E-commerce is essential in reaching the target market and achieving the best possible returns.
Milk has been around for thousands of years, but the world is changing rapidly. Just like during the industrial revolution, we’re working towards a new normal driven by technological innovation. And as an industry, we don’t have a choice. Dealing with the challenges and embracing the new initiatives will result in a sustainable and new way of dairy production and consumption. A way we could not have foreseen just 10 years ago.
We’re excited to witness the progress first-hand and will do our utmost to contribute to the future of the food that has proven its value for over 10.000 years: milk!
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A bit of background for those of you wondering what all the fuss is about :)