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Environment

Has vegan culture cancelled the cow?

The dairy industry has long been the target for environmental and vegan campaigners. But is there more to it?

The dairy industry is at war with vegans. It’s a war they say started long ago and, as is so often the case, one started by the other side. 

First it was “Februdairy”, launched in 2018 as a counter to Veganuary. Now Arla Foods, a British dairy company, launched a campaign alongside their own research stating that the rise of veganism among young people is responsible for the dairy industry’s growing uncertainty. 

The campaign, coined “Don’t Cancel the Cow”, suggests that “society’s pressure to fit in” and the increasing influence of social media is causing “nearly half the UK to make big changes to their diets”. The only outlet to cover the campaign launch was GB News, seemingly buoyed by the prospect of pesky leftists “cancelling” yet another sacred British tradition. So is there any truth to it?

The UK Committee on Climate Change and the National Food Strategy have both urged the government to help the country reduce its intake of meat and dairy for environmental reasons. It’s not the meat and dairy itself that is an issue but the damage to the environment caused by industrial-scale cattle farms.

Livestock produce huge amounts of methane, which has a “warming potential” 87 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to Nasa. In Brazil, almost 20 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, which is crucial to neutralising greenhouse gases, has disappeared due to deforestation, the vast majority to make way for cattle farms.

While the same concerns over deforestation aren’t present in UK farming, recent introductions of US-style “concentrated animal feeding operations” — essentially huge fields with cows packed horn-to-tail for slaughter — have raised questions about animal welfare.

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And although the same isn’t always true for dairy farmers, Arla has suggested those who switch to veganism and alternative products are ill-informed and need to “balance the conversation when it comes to food and the health of our planet”.

Karin McGivern, an agricultural consultant, goes further, calling vegans “the attacking force on the industry”.

Arla’s research found that 49 per cent of the UK would change their diets based on what they see on social media, with Gen Z “feeling the most pressured into making diet decisions, with over half (55 per cent) confirming that they use social media to inform decisions”.

Despite concluding that 57 per cent of Gen Z respondents planned on giving up dairy within the next year, the study suggested 49 per cent felt ashamed to order dairy in public “in front of their peers”. There are 600,000 vegans in the UK according to The Vegan Society, less than one per cent of the population.

While Arla’s campaign has gained little traction, it raises important questions about veganism and the dairy industry. Is veganism a fad? Will dairy go the way of the dinosaurs? Is there any true substitute for a really good piece of cheese?

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Tim Newthorpe, senior campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society, isn’t surprised by the campaign and the industry’s attempt to protect its interests.

“But the campaign will ultimately fail because the science is against it,” he says, “and for many people of all generations, their ethical values and understanding of animals are changing.”

Arla states that their “2,100 UK farmers want to explain that having a positive environmental impact is not as simple as cancelling food groups entirely”. And while 12 per cent of people considered the environmental impact of food, “the role of nutrition in a sustainable diet is often left behind”.

But Newthorpe argues that the environmental impact must be considered a priority.

“Dairy is the product responsible for the highest greenhouse gas emissions of all UK foods,” he explains. “Its impacts depend largely on how it is produced, but one key impact is land use, pasture land for grazing and arable land to grow crops. 

“This means less available land for other important uses such as growing crops for human consumption, habitat restoration and sustainable forestry. 

“For these reasons, both the UK Committee on Climate Change and the National Food Strategy recommended to the government that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced.”

The most recent research conducted by Ipsos in March 2022 found that 48 per cent of British adults now regularly use plant milk in their diets. And the dairy industry has long been listening to the environmental concerns of consumers, with Dairy UK boasting significant reductions in water use, greenhouse gas production and more since it introduced its “dairy roadmap” in 2008.

But there are clear benefits to veganism and switching to plant milk, according to Newthorpe.

“Research shows that plant milks have lower land-use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, leading to less pollution on average. Although it’s important to note that they vary in their nutritional composition.”

And Newthorpe also acknowledges that, for many vegans, cutting out meat and dairy is “also about the unnecessary exploitation of animals for food”.

“The dairy industry is inseparable from the meat industry, and most people now understand that the constant cycles of enforced impregnation that dairy cows are forced into and the continual removal of their calves is deeply cruel,” he says.

Over the past two decades, the economic environment has become increasingly difficult for dairy farmers. Since the Milk Marketing Board’s dissolution in 1994, UK dairy farmers have suffered record losses, and between 2018-2019 dairy farm profits fell by 50 per cent. More recently, higher shipping costs due to fuel price rises and the pandemic have had a knock-on effect on getting enough cow feed. Costs are up so the only alternative, especially for organic dairy farmers, is to lower standards and produce more cheaply or raise prices and risk driving away customers.

“The government has its role in the survival of the dairy sector,” says McGivern, “but [Arla’s] campaign is aimed at consumers and educating them as to the realities of the industry and produce.”

While many people have become educated through films such as Cow and Cowspiracy, McGivern argues that it is simply “propaganda” and “often uses video footage to instigate an emotional reaction”.

Dairy farmers need a voice as “the vegan argument has been very loud over the past few years” and “the argument that dairy farming is cruel and detrimental to the planet isn’t a balanced one”.

“Is cutting down rainforests to plant soya, to then be flown halfway around the world to be processed, environmentally friendly?” she says. “Is the process for making plant milk environmentally friendly? No.”

Ultimately, almost all agriculture bar subsistence farming will have some kind of environmental impact. But Newthorpe explains that milks based on cereals and pulses, such as oats, peas, and beans, have a lower impact than those derived from nuts, and all are far lower than dairy. The location and production methods also need to be considered, he says.

One in three Brits now drink plant-based milk. This is up from one in four in 2020. However, with only around 2-3 per cent of the population cutting out dairy, according to a YouGov data tracker, experts argue that vegans aren’t hurting the dairy industry. 

“While I’m sure the industry is also putting resources into lobbying the government, it’s clear that they see veganism as a threat,” Newthorpe says. “But the decline of the dairy industry hasn’t been caused by veganism.”

Predictably, the debate is more complicated. While mass industrial dairy farming leaves a lot to be desired in terms of environmental sustainability, the health benefits of milk should also be considered.

According to the US department of agriculture, dairy milk tends to be higher in calories, and contains more protein than plant based milk. 100ml of cow’s milk contains around 3.4 grams of protein, whereas almond milk contains 0.5 grams. The protein in dairy is also a more “complete” protein source, which means it has the full profile of essential amino acids.

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From a nutritional perspective, replacing dairy with plant-based alternatives is unlikely to be a cause for concern for those with a diverse diet. For people who do not rely on milk as a key source of protein, and instead consume a combination of legumes, meat substitutes, and grains, removing dairy from their diet is unlikely to cause any harm.

However, for certain demographics – including young children, and those on lower incomes who may have a limited dietary diversity – switching to vegan milks may not be the best or safest option.

Without access to foods that have been fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, animal protein, such as dairy, provides one of the few sources of complete protein and micronutrients.

The National Food Strategy recommendations may have encouraged the government to help people reduce meat and dairy intake overall, it did not argue an outright elimination.

In fact, it argued for an expansion of the Healthy Start scheme which gives vouchers for fruit, vegetables and milk to all pregnant women or children under five in low-income households. It’s all about a balanced diet: more fruit and vegetables, less meat and dairy.

And while UK producers of meat and dairy are by and large more efficient than those abroad, the sheer quantity of milk, beef, cheese and more which Brits eat every year takes up more land in other countries than it does at home.

Graham Wilkinson, a senior group agriculture director at Arla, says: “We know that farming is not without its challenges, and when it comes to dairy farming and the climate crisis, we have many hills to climb to reach our target of achieving carbon net-zero by 2050. 

“Arla’s farmers already produce milk with around half the emissions of the global average and, through Arla’s climate checks programme, are on a journey to reduce emissions even further.”

Perhaps the solution is not just a balanced diet at home but ensuring the government can offer British farmers a chance against cheaper imports. The squeeze on cheese is real but vegans are far from the only culprits.

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