The Demise Of Dairy

The Unstoppable Rise of the Alternative Milk and what it means for the Dairy Industry

By Eleni O’ Dwyer

It is hard now to imagine a time when you couldn’t go into your local coffee shop and order yourself an oat milk flat white. It seems impossible now, but before the age of almond milk cappuccinos, for the unfortunate lactose intolerants around us, there was no alternative to cow’s milk other than to simply not drink it.

As recently as ten years ago, the only real alternative to cow’s milk was soya milk, and even that required searching in rare health-food shops. Today, however, the alternative milk industry is estimated to be worth approximately €14 billion globally. UK plant milk sales have grown by 30% since 2015, and nearly half of all consumers in the US are now opting for non-dairy milks.

In the sea of alternative milks ranging from hazelnut to cashew to coconut milks, almond milk remains the most bought, making up two thirds of all plant milks sold. However, oat milk is the fastest-growing category of alternative milk. From April 2018 to April 2019, the Swedish oat milk brand Oatly grew by 222%. The rapid transformation of Oatly from a little-known, obscure health brand to the dairy alternative of choice surprised even CEO Toni Petersson, saying; “[h]ow do we supply when the growth is crazy?”.

This ‘crazy’ growth has been a result of an overwhelming increase in health-consciousness. The rise of vegetarian and vegan diet choices, and the general societal push for sustainability, has undeniably changed consumer habits. The surge of the wellness movement across all facets of society has created what Oatly has labelled the “post-milk generation” as Millennial and Generation Z consumers account for more and more of the overall market. Research has shown that UK teenagers now consider cow’s milk less healthy than dairy alternatives; a phenomenon that David Dobbin, former chairman of Dairy UK, has described as “a demographic time bomb”.

But alternative milks are not a purely modern phenomenon. In 1981, Philippe Vandemoortele, a Belgian food technician, used a new packing technology, the Tetra Brik, to sell his own soya milk which he called Alpro. His local supermarket refused to stock it. Today, Vandemoortele’s Alpro is owned by Danone, and in 2017 had a turnover of more than £183 million.

Meanwhile, the superfood reputation of cow’s milk is under pressure due to ever-growing concerns around animal cruelty and the dairy industry’s environmental impact. This is accompanied by an increase in lactose intolerance diagnosis, and new links between dairy products and hormone-related conditions, such as acne and premature puberty, according to Dr. Michael Greger, author of the book “How Not to Die”. For Ireland’s agriculturally dependent
economy, this presents valid fears for the future of dairy.

The dairy industry accounts for around €1.2 billion of the Irish economy annually, with the average Irish family consuming over 6 litres of milk per week. Domestic milk intake in 2019 was just shy of 8 billion litres of milk, according to the Central Statistics Office. This was in fact 400 million litres more than the 7.6 billion litres of milk recorded for the previous year. Moreover, the EU saw a 0.5% jump in milk intake in 2019.

As countless industries have been stifled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Irish dairy industry has had room to grow. A survey of over 2,000 adults in June 2020 showed that almost 40% of Irish consumers under the age of 35 increased their milk, cheese and yoghurt consumption since the outbreak of the pandemic, with people seeking familiarity and quality during uncertain times. Even pre-pandemic, 90% of plant milk buyers still purchased other dairy products, such as cheese, yoghurt and ice cream, all of whom are seeing increases in demand.

So, it seems that the milk traditionalists of the dairy industry do not have much cause for worry. While the alternative milk industry has gained huge traction, in reality, it is not superseding the dairy industry. Rather, the two are working alongside one another, both growing year on year. Instead of one milk emerging triumphant, the ambit of what consumers look to for milk simply expands to encompass all.

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