Last month, I received a rather interesting email from a PR firm representing the Silk nondairy brand. The email informed me that the Golden Globes would be joining the “dairy-free movement by serving a totally vegan, plant-based award ceremony dinner to Hollywood’s biggest stars.”
The last-minute menu change reportedly was designed to help raise awareness about climate change, food waste and more. And Silk was celebrating the “exciting moment” by providing plant-based recipes (included with the email) so folks at home could dine like the stars.
Never mind the disturbing reality that Silk, a brand owned by one of the largest dairy companies in the world, appeared to be advocating the dairy-free movement. That’s a topic for another day.
The bigger takeaway is that “plant-based” products and their related messaging have weaved their way into seemingly everywhere today — even awards shows watched by millions.
And the push continues, as more national chain restaurants scramble to add plant-based offerings to their menus. One of the more recent announcements comes from Panera, which says it is working to increase its percentage of plant-based offerings from 25% to 50%.
Call for action
I have nothing against plant-based products, of course. I’ve been eating vegetables, fruits and grains — in addition to meat and dairy — for most of my life.
My problem lies instead with the bad rap dairy is getting as more companies and organizations jump on the plant-based bandwagon. Many folks who are singing the praises of all things plant-based are portraying the dairy industry as an environmental villain (and, in many cases, a nutritional “baddy”).
And from what I see, the dairy processing industry is doing very little to fight back.
In reality, the dairy industry has come a long way on the environmental front. According to a 2019 GreenBiz article by John Talbot (https://tinyurl.com/smjgxdc), the carbon footprint of a glass of U.S. milk is 60%-plus less today than it was 75 years ago, the “lowest of any country in the world.”
And many of the dairy farmers on which processors rely for their milk supply continue to make environmentally motivated improvements. For example, Prairies Edge Dairy Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind., recently upgraded its digester to add capacity. DVO Inc., the digester supplier, notes that the new digester not only anaerobically digests all of the dairy’s manure waste, but also produces more biogas (renewable energy) per cow.
That’s just one example; similar installations have been completed or are underway across the country. But dairy processors are doing a poor job of communicating the environmental progress of their milk suppliers to consumers.
On the flip side, all is not as rosy as it appears to be within the plant-based space. For instance, the soybean industry has caused “widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe,” the World Wildlife Fund notes.
What’s more, environmentalists and organic beekeepers believe the high mortality rate being seen among U.S. honey bees can be blamed, in part, on the growing almond industry. They point to the almond industry’s industrial agriculture methods, which demand “a large-scale mechanization of one of nature’s most delicate natural processes,” according to a recent article on the website of The Guardian (https://tinyurl.com/yexzgpco).
But dairy processors also appear to be hesitant to call out any of the shortcomings associated with the ingredient supply of their plant-based competitors.
The time to act is now
Enough is enough — dairy processors have stayed silent for far too long. It’s time to tell consumers about the good things your dairy farmers are doing for the environment. (And if they aren’t making improvements here, perhaps it’s time to help them get started.)
It’s not enough to bury that information on your websites. Get it in front of consumers via on-pack messaging, social media posts and traditional media ads.
And while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to “tell it like it really is” on the plant-based front, either. It’s time to fight back.