The launch of the WWF's Livewell Plate brings the relationship of sustainable food production and nutrition into sharp focus. The same issue was being discussed last week at a conference hosted by Dairy UK, the British dairy industry association.

Not surprisingly perhaps the conference heard an articulate defence of both the environmental record of the dairy industry – that it is not the environmental pariah portrayed in some environmental literature – and the importance of dairy as a provider of key nutrients.

Putting to one side that the event was naturally attempting to show the industry in a good light, the conference discussed the key question also addressed in the Livewell report, namely how making sustainable food choices might impact on the diet, for better or for worse, and conversely how consuming certain foods because of their perceived nutritional value might actually have an environmental cost.

The latter question to a degree encapsulates the dairy industry’s lot since environmental concerns began to heighten and crystallise around climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Peter Dawson, policy director at Dairy UK, alluded to the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, dating from 2006, suggesting that the industry had been somewhat unfairly vilified as a result. 

To set the industry’s environmental footprint in what he believed to be a fairer context, Dawson referred to data gathered by CE Delft which puts dairy's global contribution to GHG emissions at 3%, while dairy livestock on its own accounts for 1.2%.

He also referred to a life cycle assessment carried out by the FAO which put GHG emissions associated with the entire dairy sector, including beef output, at 4%. Dairy on its own accounted for 2.7%, according to that report.

Moreover, the conference heard how the industry is striving to address the environmental impacts inherent in dairy production. Dr Karen Wonnacott of DairyCo, a non-profit organisation funded by a statutory levy which provides technical assistance to dairy farmers, spoke about the efforts the organisation has made to improve environmental sustainability in the sector, notably through the Milk Roadmap.

Wonnacott also referred to consumer research recently conducted by YouGov which showed that 27% of people in the UK are concerned by the emissions caused by dairy farming, 23% believe dairy cows have a negative impact on climate change and 18% would buy fewer dairy products if they had a negative impact on the environment. While that 18% may alarm dairy producers, the fact that 82% of people would not change their dairy consumption habits for environmental reasons speaks volumes for the established place dairy has in the national diet.

Dairy UK also invited two non-industry speakers to address the conference, Rob Lillywhite of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick and Richard Perkins of WWF. 

Lillywhite asserted that the environmental debate around dairy tends to be viewed largely in terms of GHG emissions with far less attention paid to factors such as ammonia losses from slurries and manures and water pollution. Taking a more holistic view would not necessarily help dairy’s public image, however. Lillywhite pointed out that when GHG emissions, pesticide toxicity, potential eutrophication and acidification and water use are taken into account, dairy has the highest aggregated environmental impact of any individual commodity. His preferred strategy for reducing the overall environmental impact of dairy was sustainable intensification, albeit with a better geographical spread around the country to reduce freight impacts, not a view likely to be shared with many environmental activists.

The industry’s attempts to address environmental impacts were applauded by Richard Perkins who said the UK dairy sector “has recognised the need to address key environmental issues and is doing as much or more to address them than any other sector”. But he said the Milk Roadmap’s quantitative GHG reduction targets were “not ambitious enough in the face of the scale of the problem”. 

Notwithstanding the dairy industry’s drive for greater sustainability, arguably its key defence is the importance of dairy to a balanced diet. Three dairy industry nutrition experts spoke at the conference, Dr Judith Bryans, director of the Dairy Council, Dr Anna-Karin Modin Edman of the Swedish Dairy Association and Dr Cindy Schweitzer of the Global Dairy Platform.

Modin Edman’s contribution was particularly interesting as it drew on research she carried out last year with three other researchers into the balance between nutrient density and climate impact. As in other presentations, Modin Edman pointed out that the environmental impact of milk was lower than is often perceived but when nutrient density is measured over climate impact in what the researchers have termed the Nutrient Density to Climate Impact (NDCI) index, milk comes out well, and ahead of beverages which might replace it such as soy milk, orange juice and oat drinks. 

“To avoid erroneous conclusions (vegetable vs. animal foods), the nutritional composition must be included in the discussion of food climate impact,” says Modin Edman. “The NDCI-index enables inclusion of nutritional aspects in the debate on food consumption aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The high nutrient density of milk and milk products makes them a good choice from a climate perspective.”

It also has to be borne in mind that alternatives have to be fortified in order to be a nutritional substitute for milk and obtaining those nutrients in itself has an environmental impact. Another key facet discussed in detail was bioavailability of nutrients, how effectively nutrients which may be present in foods are absorbed into the system. Judith Bryans had also pointed out in her presentation that some of these nutrients when added through fortification do not stay in solution all that effectively in contrast to their natural dispersal in milk. 

Both Bryans and Modin Edman referred to the unsuitability of some foods as alternative nutrient sources to dairy. The representation of equivalent nutrient quantities in terms of mountains of cabbage or broccoli may be a little arch but it puts over the message, particularly in reference to parents ensuring children obtain all the nutrients they need.

That the conference showed dairy in a relatively good light is no surprise. But what can also clearly be taken from the presentations last week is that the issues of the nutritional density, bioavailability and to a degree palatability have to be taken into account in the debate over the sustainable production and consumption of food. 

Just as industry advocates may overegg their case from time to time, campaigners are prone to be rather simplistic and idealistic when advocating alternative, sustainable dietary solutions.