Nordic Dairy Congress: Feeding the planet tomorrow

Maria Glantz, the president of the Nordic Dairy Congress from Lund University, helped to open the 45th programme in Malmö, Sweden, with the observation that the assembled would have the opportunity to discuss the challenge of being part of the solution to feeding a growing world population.  

However, it was Dr Judith Bryans, the former IDF president and Dairy UK chief executive, who showed a stark reminder of what humanity is facing in the future, with a video showing the population growth on Earth since the beginning of human habitation. As the dots filled up the map, she reminded everyone, “There are currently 7.2 billion people on the planet, with the same land, and same water mass as we have had since the beginning of the world. It is estimated that there will be 9.7 billion by 2050, with 68 per cent of the population in cities and urban areas by then. Around 90 per cent of the growth will be in Asia and Africa, and 1.5 billion will be over the age of 65. We have a major demographic shift.” 

What they all have in common, Dr Bryans said, was that they all need nutritious food. “But people have to be able to afford food, and nutritious food is not nutritious if you can’t take it home and eat it. Food security has not been as high up on the food agenda as it should be.” With dairy, “We provide essential nutrients and help to comply with dietary guidelines globally” as well as helping with the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).  

Malnutrition in all its forms has to be recognised, she states, which includes stunting, cognitive impairment and micronutrient deficiencies. “We need human capital, but if people are malnourished, this won’t happen.” 

Dairy has for its part been the world’s largest social safety net, through the many school feeding programmes. “During Covid-19, the world was shut down, and students may have left education and not come back.” However, the International Dairy Federation has its school milk knowledge hub, with resources in how to set up a milk programme in various settings.  

She warned there are continuing challenges for the global dairy industry. These include the disconnect between the consumer and where their food comes from, the misconceptions around dairy by the media and the regulatory environment. She noted the various nutrient rich dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, and the size differential between obtaining calcium, for example, from kidney beans versus a glass of milk. “The question becomes, how many planets do we need to produce all the dairy replacements? The answer is that we can’t feed the population now or in the future without dairy.” 

At the end of the day, she said, “We have great products, and we have a role in a plethora of SDGs, but we have to keep moving together. All people have a right to food and it has to be good quality food, and you can’t take nutrition away from climate change.” 


A matter of debate 

The panel debate then discussed, “The world towards 2050 – is there room for dairy?”  

As the moderator, Theis Brøgger, communications director for Arla Foods UK noted, “It is 28 years until 2050, and a lot can happen in 28 years. In 1994, there were 2.2 billion fewer people. How does dairy adapt? This is about new opportunities and challenges for dairy.  

Alex Henriksen, managing director for northern Europe at Tetra Pak said, “Yes, there will be room for dairy in 2050, but there will be many alternatives. Global perspective is needed and we have to have something to feed people with. We need to develop ingredients and technologies to reduce the amount of resources used while increasing the yield. We have to work on consumers’ perception of dairy, where they see it as worse for the environment but they like the taste. If we all increased the output to US standards, we could produce what is needed with 60 million cows versus 400 million cows.”  

Ulf Sonesson, research & innovation manager food & agriculture for RISE Agrifood and Bioscience in Sweden, said, “There is room for dairy in the future, but we should embrace the strong pressures to change the system as a whole, so we can prepare for the unthinkable things that can happen. I can’t see what the work will be like in 20 to 40 years, but scale has been main driver of agriculture, so we have to look at technology that can work on smaller scales.”  

Dr Bryans stated, “I am optimistic about the future of dairy. It is so interwoven in so many cultures, I can’t see a time when dairy won’t have a role in the food system. We are a consumer-centric industry, we have evolved and will evolve further, as we have data behind us and are far more forward in transparency and communication. We shouldn’t be fearful of communicating – there is no perfect industry, and we have to remain relevant to Gen Z and Gen Alpha, and find a way to communicate that is globally relevant as well as country specific. 

Brian Lindsay, director at the Global Dairy Platform and Dairy Sustainability Framework, was also bullish: “Hell yeah, dairy’s going to be there in 2050. It’s more than just GHG and food, it’s food security and lets kids get their education in other parts of the world. India is growing by 6.6 per cent per year and dairy provides livelihoods. All agricultural commodities have impacts, and we have to be clear about that, and stop thinking in silos. We need to tell the whole story, communicate smarter and involve more social sciences in research and communications.” 

Chr Hansen’s CEO Mauricio Graber also noted, “Dairy will continue to be a great way to bring nutrient dense and delicious products around the world. It’s about how we embrace the consumers and regulators so that we bring them along with us. Dairy will continue to play a fundamental role in global nutrition and our responsibility is to help shape that future.  

Brøgger asked the panel, “Dairy is already facing new legislation developments in the coming years, and where do you see new opportunities and challenges?” 

Graber said, “Microbial fermentation solutions are 21st century solutions, but we are dealing with regulations from the 20th century. We need to advance the framework so that new solutions get brought to market.” 

Bryans stated, “As long as it’s intelligent regulation we can deal with. When government bodies working on different areas don’t make sense with each other, a one size fits all policy is often not very helpful. Can you please bring people who have some understanding about how food is produced, into the team on regulation? European governments are doing what they can in terms of trade, climate change and diet, and putting labels on products for many different things. For regulators in China, it’s more about food safety and they are very pro-dairy. It depends on what area of the world you’re in. In this area of the world, it’s about the negative – you’re killing yourself with what’s on your fork, rather than ensuring safety of that food.” 

Lindsay noted, “When we look at India, it’s about livelihoods and food security, and by working effectively in this area, the country is reducing GHG emissions.  

Looking at organic food production, Sonesson of RISE observed that the segment has a yield issue. “In order to have a large-scale contribution to a sustainable food system, there needs to be stronger productivity.” 

Bryans observed, “Whether we’re talking about nutrition or climate change, we are on a journey, and some companies and countries are further ahead than others. There is no linear trajectory where we all get to a certain point in sustainability, and we can’t detach the improvements we’re making for climate change credentials from the fact that we feed the world. Our opportunities might be more regional. There is a reason that somebody who grows two crops a year that fail, then goes and buys a cow when they get the money. We can’t say that you can’t have that, because of climate change. All of us moving together will help climate change and help the debate.” 

Lindsay added that a FAO study of dairy emissions for 2005-2015 showed that milk production went up by 30 per cent while emissions intensity went down by 11 per cent, and absolute emissions went up 18 per cent.  

When asked about the non-dairy competition, Sonesson said, “It is important to tell the whole story and the larger picture, about what the dairy cow puts in that is good for society. Bryans said “I am not particularly scared, as Asian countries have consumed plant-based products for a long time, but they are strong dairy consumers. Closer to home in the UK, there are media stories about the whole world turning to plant based, but when you look at what consumers are actually buying, our consumers are flexitarian. When it came to Covid-19, our consumers turned to dairy because it was there for them. Consumers see plant based as clean, and don’t see milk as clean, so we as a sector need to do more about that idea.” 

Brøgger asked about sustainability: “What can dairy learn from other food sectors?”  

Graber replied, “What are we learning about energy and electric cars? The topics are not unrelated. There is likely to be an evolution, not a revolution. The global footprint of dairy continues to drive nutritional offerings.” 

“People are looking to us as a leading industry, and we love pictures of cows in fields,” Bryans noted. “It gives an image of a sleepy industry, and doesn’t show how innovative the industry can be. Don’t see us as we really are and this needs to be updated for the future.” 

Other industries such as meat and tobacco are fighting some of the same disruptions, Brøgger pointed out.” What do we have that others don’t?”  

Lindsay said it was the cooperation in the sector: “We collaborate in dairy. We have daily contact with our customer and we can influence change as well. We also work closely with beef industry as lot of beef comes from the dairy herd. We can build on other’s experience, but not at the expense of others.”

Meeting the SDGs 

The Friday morning panel was devoted to how dairy can meet the United Nations’ SDGs, with CEOs and MDs from all over the Nordic region discussing their issues.  

Gunnar Hovlud, CEO of Tine Norway began by telling the audience about how the pandemic underlined the importance of how companies and countries can supply countries with food. “In Norway, it is impossible to produce all this protein by grass production only, not arable. Tine is working with its partners in many different ways. On the farm it is introducing red algae into feeds to reduce methane from the cow. On the packaging side, it is introducing renewable plastic into all plastic packaging. We are cooperating with consumers and customers to do things along the value chain. We are trying to make it a recyclable circle, so it is much better for consumer sand the industry, and finding solutions for problems instead of doing things alone.” 

Kai Gyllström, Arla Foods Sweden CEO notes that having a sustainability approach isn’t just about affordable, nutritious food, it’s about helping the famers have a proper livelihood.  

The P missing from the slide is profit. We need to make sustainability profitable for our farmers. We are doing a lot of work on-farm, to reduce GHG by 30 per cent by 2030, with climate checks, and understanding the carbon footprint of every farm – we are building the world’s biggest dairy farm database. Arla’s climate footprint is less than half of the global average and below the European average. We needs to do a better job communicating to consumers the facts about farming, as we are getting a worse reputation as an industry than we deserve. Without farming, there would be a lot fewer things. It’s a good if complicated story.”  

Poul Pedersen, CEO of Thise Dairy in Denmark noted that his dairy has a long history of organic production, and has been working to reduce soy consumption, so it will be soy-free as of October 2022. “The way to reduce pressure on the rainforest is not to buy it. Our yield will go down if we only use grass, but there’s also horsebeans and peas from Europe.  

The carbon footprint is enormous from soy, but we’ve been able to make a safe calculation about the feed. We don’t lose time on waiting, and prefer to act instead of waiting for the perfect system.  

CEO Robert Auselius of Valio Sverige noted his firm’s top three focuses were a carbon neutral food chain, well-being and sustainable lifestyles, and nourishing nature. The core of the business and its vision as a company is connected to UN SDGs: “The leader in innovative dairy and food solutions.” Valio has developed grass mixes that suit northern conditions and help with carbon binding. It has a joint venture company to produce bio-gas as well.  

CEO Krister Zackari at Norrmejerier, Sweden noted that the firm is using biogas, reducing water and electricity use. “The good news is that it makes us pretty average in Sweden. We’re as good and bad as the others. It is sad in a way that we’re not the worst in the bunch. When you are asking consumers what they’re doing for the environment, they answer they have a hybrid car, eat less meat and dairy. We are seen as a problem, and a bad symbol that consumers should reduce to improve the environment.” 

Dairy Ireland’s Connor Mulvihill stated, “There’s a food crisis coming and we’re a solution to it, but we need to own our problems. Ireland has the only stable or growing dairy herd globally. We are heading towards 11bn litres milk pool, and 82 per cent growth. The eyes of Europe are very much on us.  

“It is an accident of geography as we have lots of rain, so the most economical way is growing grass and making milk, with 93 per cent exported, and we contribute €15bn to the Irish economy every year. However, this is the rub – agriculture is 37 per cent of emissions as Ireland is not an industrial economy. What are we doing about it? Only about five to six per cent within our own scope, so we have to bring farmers, the industry and the state with us.”  

Mulvihill described his outlook as “Paranoid about the present, but positive about the future. We need to own water quality, calf welfare, and emissions and have to match policy and the science. We don’t want to be bitter; we want to be better. Climate science don’t get credit for sequestration, and we can’t get to climate neutrality without agriculture. We are the only industry that can sequester carbon. We need to get on with it and implement it.” 

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