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October 18, 2011

In the spotlight: Can dairy feed the world?

This week representatives from dairy companies around the world are gathered at the World Dairy Summit in the Italian city of Parma to discuss the role dairy can play in feeding a rapidly growing global population, while limiting the impact the industry has on the environment.

This week representatives from dairy companies around the world are gathered at the World Dairy Summit in the Italian city of Parma to discuss the role dairy can play in feeding a rapidly growing global population, while limiting the impact the industry has on the environment.

The challenges companies face are myriad, but they say co-operation between governments, NGOs and dairy companies can help ensure global food security. Sam Webb reports.

The figures surrounding global food security are stark and make uncomfortable reading. The United Nations estimates that nearly 1bn people are chronically malnourished and the global population is set to grow from 7bn today to 9bn by 2050.

Meanwhile, the world has become increasingly urbanised, resulting in economic migration to cities from rural, food-producing areas and the depletion of agricultural land.

Rapid population growth in emerging economies and the unexpected changes it brings to food demand, as well as a vulnerable agricultural system, add to the world’s food-producing woes.

But dairy producers are well-placed to shoulder a large part of the burden, according to the International Dairy Federation, the organisers of the World Dairy Summit. This year the theme of the event is “sustainable food security”.

IDF president Richard Doyle says milk and dairy products have an important nutritional role to play in human diet, but the industry must ensure the development of ever more intelligent systems that not only minimise environmental burdens, but also ensure high standards of animal health and welfare while delivering nutritionally valuable products into a well-organised food supply chain.

“The theme of sustainability and food security is of great significance to the global dairy community, perhaps now more than ever”, he said.

“We need to find ways of balancing reducing environmental impact with an increase in production. Every stakeholder in the dairy chain has a stake in feeding the world population.”

Much of the work is already under way. Dennis Jonsson, CEO of Tetra Pak, which supplies much of the dairy sector with packaging, presented some of the outcomes of its sustainability drive at the summit’s launch on Sunday (16 October). 

Last year the company met its 2010 climate goal, reaching 13% absolute carbon reduction since 2005 while growing business, achieved primarily by reducing energy use in factories.

Education is also key because of the inefficiency and waste which dogs many processors in the developing world. Tetra Pak has a Dairy Hub programme, which works closely with dairy processors to deliver better economies of scale, with focus on feeding, breeding, animal health and training. It was launched in Pakistan, where demand is growing faster than supply and production is highly inefficient. The company says one farm hub increased milk collection from just 400 litres to 8,500 litres per day in just one year.

Jonsson added that Tetra Pak has only been able to achieve these aims by collaborating with industry associations such as the IDF and the Global Dairy Platform; with NGOs such as WWF and the UN Global Compact; as well as local and national governments.

“Innovative solutions will be needed in production, processing, distribution and products”, he said.

“This will require individual company leadership but, perhaps even more importantly, collaboration among business partners, with governments, science and representatives of consumers and civil society.”

Yet despite his confidence, there remain many barriers to improving production – hence the need for conferences like the World Dairy Summit.

Joerg Seifert, technical director for the IDF, summed up the uncertainties that remain.

He said: “What are the challenges for our industry in the future? How will we ensure environmental sustainability? How will we address product labelling and consumer protection? How can we better communicate the unique nutritional value of milk?

“The challenge is how we secure and enhance the importance of the dairy industry worldwide.”

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