SUN VALLEY, Idaho — There isn’t enough research on food sustainability to develop dietary guidelines for it, but they are inevitable, and the dairy industry needs to be involved in the discussion, an industry expert says.
“It’s probably one of the most important issues facing our industry in the next five years,” said Greg Miller, chief science officer for the National Dairy Council, during the Idaho Milk Processors Association’s annual convention last week.
“Dr. Dairy” as he’s known in the industry, Miller said three pillars — environmental, economic and social — form the foundation for sustainability goals, and nutrient-rich dairy fits in the sweet spot of all three objectives.
The issue is a hot topic due to a growing world population, expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. A lot of that growth will be in developing countries, which is where dairy exports fit in. Food production will need to increase 70 percent with shrinking resources, he said.
Global dairy demand, excluding butter, is expected to reach 2 trillion pounds of milk equivalent, so innovation and new technology are needed, he said.
“We need consumers to understand that technology and how it allows us to produce more food and more nutritious food,” he said.
The dairy industry has seen continuous improvements in the efficiency of milk production over the last 70 years. Today’s gallon of milk is produced with 90 percent less land and 60 percent less water than in 1944, while producing 75 percent less manure with a 63 percent smaller carbon footprint.
Milk per cow has increased from about 5,000 pounds a year to 20,000 pounds, he said.
Dairy farmers are already doing a good job trying to keep the environmental footprint as small as possible, he said.
But that doesn’t stop the detractors — who claim dairy production is inefficient due to the amount of feed needed and that people can get the same nutrients from plants, he said.
“The reality is most of the cow feed is roughage that people can’t eat,” he said.
And cows are great recyclers, converting byproducts of human food — such as almond shells and orange peels, which would end up in landfills — into milk, he said.
On the nutrient front, recommended dairy substitutes aren’t practical and aren’t widely consumed. Someone would have to eat 36 1/2 cups of kale to get the same amount of calcium found in the recommended three servings of dairy daily, he said.
Replacing the nutrients in dairy would demand too many calories or be too large an amount to consume, and it would cost more money, he said.
Affordability is another factor in the sustainability goals, and dairy costs less per serving than meat, poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables, he said.
Health and healthcare costs are also factors, and dairy consumption has a positive effect on both. Non-communicable, preventable diseases are responsible for three out of five deaths worldwide. Scientific evidence shows consuming dairy improves bone health and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, he said.
A 2004 study by the National Dairy Council found that if Americans consumed three to four servings of dairy a day, it would reduce healthcare costs by $214 billion over five years.
Another study by Dairy Australian estimated the cost of direct healthcare attributable to low dairy consumption in 2010-2011 in that nation was $2.1 billion, he said.
Most research on agricultural sustainability has been aimed at the carbon footprint, and a lot more needs to be done on the other aspects of sustainability to have science-based dietary guidelines.
But such guidelines are coming, and the dairy industry needs to be telling its story of sustainability and educating consumers on the economic and social benefits of nutrient-rich dairy products, he said.