While our leaders debate over each country’s emissions targets, who could be doing more, who or what is causing the most harm, how we can make change without hurting economic stability and so on, it might be refreshing and reassuring to know that not everyone is waiting for them to make such decisions.
The Australian dairy industry is one example and they have had a sustainability framework in place since 2012. These regular forums are part of their ongoing commitment to education, evaluation and change. One of the points made that struck me the most was that farming is one of the industries most affected by climate change, while also contributing to it. Farmers are vulnerable and yet pressure is immense on them to provide solutions. One of the key pillars of the framework is supporting rural communities and we all need to get behind that. Without farmers we have very little to eat.
One of the points made that struck me the most was that farming is one of the industries most affected by climate change, while also contributing to it. Farmers are vulnerable and yet pressure is immense on them to provide solutions.
As a nutrition scientist and dietitian, I am interested in how the food system works from the grass roots of farm life to the end product in the hands of the consumer. And this is exactly what we have to do in considering what a sustainable food system looks like for the future. What aspects can we improve and where must change be made? It is no longer sufficient for us to consider only the nutrition of a food, we have to consider the environmental footprint of that food. If we are to look after our planet, we have to at the very least freeze and preferably shrink our overall food footprint.
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are probably what you immediately think of in relation to climate change and they are indeed a key aspect. But they are not the only aspect. Biodiversity, ensuring the complexity of ecosystems remains intact, fertiliser, pesticide and water use, soil erosion, destruction of native land to create more farmland, the methods used to harvest and transport produce… and all this before we get to the steps used in processing the food and packaging it ready for distribution. Finally, along every step of the way food waste is a big problem.
Let’s consider GHG emissions first. I learned that in Australia, agriculture is responsible for about 15% of total GHG emissions. If we look at the dairy industry alone it contributes 1.5% of total emissions. It does beg the question as to whether there are bigger fish to fry. Am I really making a difference to my environmental footprint by eating less dairy, or perhaps I should use my car less? Or put solar panels on my house? Or stop eating so much junk food or throwing so much food in the bin?
I learned that in Australia, agriculture is responsible for about 15% of total GHG emissions. If we look at the dairy industry alone it contributes 1.5% of total emissions.
But putting the bigger things aside, every little change does of course add up to big change at a national and global level. We must pick the low hanging fruit and do the easy stuff, while we work on the bigger, more complicated things to change.
Many dairy farmers are already making changes such as improving biodiversity on their land by planting trees. Carefully controlling water and fertiliser use. Using homegrown feeds for their cattle rather than using imported soy or other feed that comes from areas of deforestation in places such as the Amazon. Installing solar panels to generate green power. Switching to electric farm machinery. Considering the latest technologies to reduce methane (a GHG) production by cattle such as adding a special kind of seaweed to the feed. Finding better means to recycle containers used for packaging.
Progress is being made, although arguably not quickly enough and that is what the industry is working on improving. They need support from us as consumers and at a bigger level from the retailers and the government.
As consumers though, the big question remains as to whether we should be eating less dairy or switching to plant-based products? A key point made by one speaker, which I totally agree with, is that sometimes when we make the more environmentally friendly choice, we trade off good nutrition.
A key point made by one speaker, which I totally agree with, is that sometimes when we make the more environmentally friendly choice, we trade off good nutrition.
Take milk for example. Plant-based ‘milks’ cannot compare nutritionally to dairy milk. They don’t come close to the complex mix of nutrients found in dairy milk. That shouldn’t really be surprising given that dairy milk is a whole food, whereas plant-based milks are created by humans. They almost always have refined oils and sweeteners added, while many are fortified with nutrients such as calcium to try to replicate what you find in dairy milk. But they don’t get there.
So, which do we choose? The important point made is that you can have a sustainable diet that includes dairy foods. That allows you to get the nutrition you need, while also keeping your food environmental footprint down. The big picture is what is important. We should indeed all be eating more plant food, and that can include plant-based milks, but why not have both? Why can I not have a steak one night and a bean burger the next? And in the same vein have a soy latte while tucking into a bowl of yoghurt with berries? Or indeed a mix of oat milk with dairy milk on my muesli?
We should indeed all be eating more plant food, and that can include plant-based milks, but why not have both?
While the dairy industry does its utmost to evolve into a more sustainable food system, we can all do our part. The big-ticket item is to reduce food waste. It’s horrifying to realise that a third of all our food ends up in the bin and ultimately in landfill, rotting away and producing yet more GHGs.
We can all do better. Shop only for what you need. Use a list or buy more frequently, especially for fresh produce with shorter shelf life. Learn how to store fresh produce correctly to prolong its life. Use your freezer. You can even freeze dairy milk by the way!
Secondly, focus on including the most nutrient-dense foods – this includes dairy - while limiting junk foods (ultra-processed foods) that are nutritionally poor and not a necessary part of a balanced diet.
So, in answer to the question can dairy be part of a sustainable diet? The answer is yes it most certainly can.
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