Meet the British dairy farmers fighting back against the vegan plant-milk boomThe creators of a pioneering, carbon-neutral product hope to reignite the nation's thirst for cow's milk
BySue Quinn4 October 2021 • 6:00am
Francis Clarke, MD of Trewithen Dairy which is pioneering a carbon-neutral milk
The rolling green pastures of Cornwall might not look like a battle ground, but there’s a war being waged in this lush landscape. With the British dairy industry in steep decline, farmers and producers here are fighting back against the soaring popularity of plant-based milks such as oat, almond and soy.
Frustrated that alternative-milk producers are claiming the ethical and environmental high ground, and keen to help tackle climate change, Trewithen Dairy in the Glynn Valley has launched a pioneering project: to produce Britain’s first carbon-neutral milk, which it calls Earth Milk.
The family-run firm – which used to run a dairy herd until 2001 but has since become famous for its production of clotted cream, milk and butter – is helping two local dairy farms, each with 400 cows, to switch to farming methods that significantly help the environment.
This involves growing pastures of diverse grasses, herbs and legumes using zero- or reduced-chemical fertilisers, and minimal ploughing. The cows (one herd is a British Friesian crossed with Scandinavian Red and Jersey, the other a cross of Brown Swiss x Norwegian Red and Montbeliarde – mixed breeds chosen because they give the milk a deeper flavour), are allowed to roam and graze freely on these nature-rich fields which helps to restore nutrients to the soil and boost plant and wildlife diversity. The small amount of supplementary feed the cows eat contains no soy, which is linked to deforestation. Most importantly, the approach captures or ‘sequesters’ carbon in the soil.
Dairy farmers Martin and Bridget Whell are part of Trewithen’s Earth Milk project. Their cows graze on a pasture of chicory, clover, herbs and grasses – a mixture known as herbal ley – which will replenish the carbon in the soil. “The beauty of the herbal ley is that while there’s great diversity above ground, below ground is where the magic really happens,” Martin says. “Deeper tap roots and more complex root systems mean more carbon can be stored in the soil, mixed with a greater diversity of bacteria and fungi all vastly improve soil health. And we’re using a little over half the artificial fertilisers we were using two years ago. That’s significant.”
Martin and Bridget Whell, who run one of the regenerative farms contracted to Trewithen Dairy and are part of its Earth Milk project
Trewithen MD Francis Clarke, whose family has been farming and producing dairy in the area since 1976, says that Earth Milk (a project that has been running for two years) should be ready to launch next year.
Initially, the milk will achieve carbon-neutrality partly because of trees planted to offset the greenhouse gases created in its production (methane produced when cows burp, for example, and the remaining carbon footprint of chemical fertilisers). But within a few years, Clarke hopes, Earth Milk will have a zero carbon footprint thanks entirely to the extra carbon being added to the soil. This will be measured regularly, and the results published, to prove there’s no greenwashing.
“With the government talking about reducing meat and dairy consumption to tackle climate change, it’s time for dairy farmers to tell their story,” Clarke says. “Milk is an excellent, nutrient-dense product and we need to look at methods to produce it in the most sustainable way possible so we can continue to do what we do.”
Environmental campaigners point to intensive indoor dairy farms, where cows rarely graze outdoors, as major culprits when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. (There are no official figures available but by one estimate more than 40,000 dairy cows on 70 farms in the UK are reared intensively indoors.)
Clarke says consumers need to understand that cows aren’t driving the climate crisis; the way they’re farmed is the problem. In fact, he argues, when managed in a sustainable, environmentally positive way they can actually help solve the climate crisis.
Cows will graze freely on nature-rich fields to helps restore nutrients to the soil
“Our farmers expect to be using half the chemical fertilisers they were using before they started the Earth Milk project while producing the same amount of milk,” Clarke says. “That’s astonishing, and we only expect that to improve as the soil continues to improve.”
Many consumers are unaware that plant-based milks aren’t environmentally ideal. Almond milk is linked to high-water use, soy is linked to deforestation and oat to mass-produced monoculture (where it’s grown intensively and repeatedly on a field
and often sprayed with pesticide, although not all oat milk producers do this). “A monoculture of oats, for example isn’t good and doesn't support an ecosystem in the soil it grows in,” Clarke says.
Changing consumers’ minds about plant milks will be a challenge, however, given their popularity. Almost a quarter of UK consumers now drink non-dairy milk, according to Mintel, and sales have risen by 30 per cent since 2015. Most Brits drink dairy as well as plant-based milk, but sales of the former have plunged by more than 50 per cent since 1974.
Concerns around health, ethics and the environment are driving alternative milk’s popularity, but according to Mintel there are signs the trend is shifting. Analysts say the pandemic has heightened public concerns about the importance of getting the best possible source of nutrition. Research shows 55 per cent of adults now prefer milk that’s naturally nutritious rather than those – like plant-based milks – fortified with added vitamins and minerals.
Of course, plant-based milks are vital for people with dairy allergies and sensitivities, but nutritionists and scientists say dairy milk is more nutritious. “Plant-based milks are generally poorer in many nutrients, but especially protein, iodine, vitamin B12 and calcium,” says Ian Givens, professor of Food Chain Nutrition at Reading University. Those who shun dairy milk point out these nutrients are available in other foods, but Prof Givens says of all sources, the body is best able to
absorb the calcium in dairy.
He’s most concerned about the low levels of protein in milk alternatives. “I strongly feel protein is the biggest issue, especially for children, with many of the products containing very low amounts,” he says, adding that soya and pea-based milks have the highest concentrations. “There have been some serious cases where young children were fed plant-based drinks in place of cow milk, leading to classical protein deficiency effects.”
Trewithen Dairy's Cornish milk on its way to shop shelves. Its carbon-neutral Earth Milk will launch next year
Some of the proteins in dairy play a vital role in bone health, blood pressure, and the development of muscles that protect vital organs and help maintain posture and balance, an increasing issue for the elderly. "Simply fortifying plant-based milk might not be a complete replacement,” Prof Givens argues.
Registered nutritional therapist Claire McWilliam says it is vital to check the labels of plant-based milks to ensure they’re fortified, because not all of them are. “It’s especially important if giving it to small children, teenagers and pregnant women who may miss out on key nutrients during critical periods of growth and development,” she says. “Furthermore, not all fortified milks contain sufficient amounts of key nutrients.”
McWilliam believes it’s also worth bearing in mind that plant-based milks count as ultra-processed foods (UPFs) – those products industrially altered to a high degree.
This means some of the nutrients in their base ingredients – nuts, seeds and legumes – might have been lost during processing. It’s also unclear whether milk alternatives support the gut microbiome, now known to be vital for good health in a variety of ways. More research is also needed into the long-term effects of substituting dairy with plant-based alternatives, she says.
There are important factors to consider when choosing dairy milk. Recent studies confirm that organic milk is significantly lower in iodine and selenium – nutrients that young women often lack – than standard, so it’s important to get these from other sources. “But there is evidence to suggest grass-fed cows produce milk richer in conjugated linoleic acids (CLA),” McWilliam says. “Animal studies have shown this type of fat may improve immune function and might also be effective in lowering blood pressure and reducing body mass although more human studies are needed.”
Meanwhile, all 35 dairy farmers who currently supply Trewithen with milk already graze their cows sustainably, mostly on Cornish grass. Francis Clarke hopes the regenerative farming approach used to produce Earth Milk will one day be rolled out to them all, and he welcomes initiatives by other British dairies to produce milk in a more sustainable way.
Trewithen has other green initiatives in the pipeline. A self-serve scheme where customers refill milk in re-usable glass bottles will be expanded into supermarkets. And plastic packaging of Trewithen products is on its way out, starting with butter next year, when wrappers will be fully recyclable.
“Our focus with Earth Milk is to produce dairy products that are affordable for all, produced sustainably and help boost soil health, biodiversity an put carbon back into the earth,” Francis says. “Dairy farmers and producers can be part of the solution to the environmental problems we’re all facing.”
How do milks measure up?A study by Oxford University in 2018 found some alternative milks were better than others in terms of carbon emissions, the land required for crops and the water needed to grow them:
SoyaSoya milk scores well in terms of sustainability and is the next best thing to dairy in terms of protein content. But vast tracts of rainforest have been cleared to grow soya to feed animals for meat and dairy production. If you opt for soya milk, make sure it’s made from beans grown outside South America.
Carbon emissions: 1kg/litre; Land use: 0.7m2 /litre; Water use: 28 litres of water/litre of milk
OatOat milk is widely regarded as one of the most sustainable and ethical plant milk choices and is not linked to deforestation in developing countries. In terms of nutrition, it’s no match for cow’s milk. Oat milk is low in calcium and other nutrients, meaning it isn’t an adequate cow’s milk replacement for infant children and teens unless it’s fortified with added nutrients.
Carbon emissions: 0.9kg/litre; Land use: 0.8m2 /litre; Water use: 48 litres of water/litre of milk
AlmondAlmond trees are water-guzzlers, especially in drought-prone California, where 80 per cent of the world’s almonds are grown. Intensively farmed, they need irrigation unlike almond trees traditionally grown in the Mediterranean. Surging demand for almond milk is also threatening California’s bees, which are essential for pollinating the trees. Almond milk is a good source of vitamin E.
Carbon emissions: 0.7kg/litre; Land use: 0.5m2/litre; Water use: 371 litres of water/litre of milk
RiceRice milk is arguably the least environmentally friendly option, as rice is water hungry and produces more greenhouse gases than other plant milks.
Carbon emissions: 1.2kg/litre; Land use: 0.3m2/litre; Water use: 270 litres of water/litre of milk
DairyCow’s milk currently takes a toll on the planet: producing one litre is roughly equivalent to driving a family car 10 miles. However, cow’s milk is a good source of protein and calcium, as well as nutrients including vitamin B12 and iodine.
Carbon emissions: 3.2kg/litre; Land use: 9m2/litre; Water use: 628 litres of water/litre of milk
All figures from an extension to the 2018 Oxford University Study, 'Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers', by J Poore and T Nemecek
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