It’s no secret that consumers are more health-conscious now than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this already fast-growing trend as people re-evaluated their current lifestyles and began taking a more proactive approach to their health and wellbeing.
But instead of just “cutting back” on the unhealthier aspects of their diet, consumers are now looking to add more, by increasing their nutrient intake through functional foods that provide additional health benefits. Brands have been quick to embrace this shift in preferences — in particular, by developing products containing popular health-boosting dairy ingredients such as prebiotics and protein to offer extra nutrition.
Although consumers are keen to improve their health, it’s not coming at the expense of the planet. As environmental concerns grow, sustainability and health now come hand-in-hand, causing many manufacturers to reassess their operations across the supply chain to ensure they are helping people make healthier and greener choices.
Sustainability is an important issue for food and nutrition companies formulating with dairy ingredients in particular; as much as 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural industry, with dairy ingredients accounting for around 2% of that figure. So how is the dairy industry supporting its customers and contributing to the mission of putting more sustainable, nutritious products on our retail shelves?
The farm: where it all begins
Implementing forward-thinking solutions at the farm level is one way to start working toward a more sustainable, circular dairy industry. Dairy co-operatives can equip farmers with the right support and tools to help operate as efficiently and sustainably as possible — for example, by optimizing water management — to reduce the farm’s footprint.
Reducing energy consumption on the farm can also make all the difference. We estimate that if farmers cut their energy consumption by half, they could reduce their footprint by as much as 3% per kilogram of milk. Farms are also turning to renewable “clean” energy sources such as solar, wind or even manure. Mono manure fermentation — a process in which manure is fermented without co-products — can cut greenhouse gas emissions at the farm, as well as give farmers the opportunity to generate extra income through renewable energy. Our Jumpstart program shows that a single fermenter can provide enough renewable energy to fuel as many as 300 homes and reduce ammonia and methane emissions by 50% and 80%, respectively.
Supply chain transparency — from grass to glass
Taking ownership of the supply chain from start to finish is key for providing businesses with the fuller picture. This is where new technologies and scientific innovation come in, providing a more connected view across operations and production processes to identify where to make improvements. For example, by monitoring biodiversity data at the farm, you can track gas emissions, soil nitrogen balance, ammonia emission, share of protein produced by own land, share of permanent grassland, share of nature and landscape management. This provides farmers with detailed, personalized insights on how to make improvements.
Having a better picture of the supply chain can also help improve efficiencies when transporting dairy ingredients. In addition to using sustainable fuel sources such as bio liquified natural gas, reducing truck weight and training drivers to drive more efficiently can cut back on CO2 emissions. Don’t underestimate these seemingly small actions — they can have a huge impact on a product’s carbon footprint.
A circular future
Helping brands to be more sustainable is about much more than just making reductions. Dairy co-operatives are well placed to advise on how to become more circular.
Partnerships — whether upstream, downstream and horizontally — are a key part of this strategy. Not only are manufacturers able to waste less and become more efficient, but they can also improve their sustainability credentials by tapping into the insights and expertise from across the industry to address the areas that will make the most impact.
With dairy ingredients such as protein and prebiotics becoming increasingly popular among health-conscious consumers, brands must prioritize both nutrition and sustainability to stand out on increasingly crowded retail shelves. With this in mind, it is vital that brands look across their entire supply chain to substantiate sustainability claims.
The dairy industry is already making important strides to support this mission and minimize the impact their ingredients have on a product’s overall environmental footprint. By collaborating with the right partners, they could appeal to the next generation of health- and eco-aware shoppers for many years to come.
 Poore, J., & Nemecek, T., "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers," Science, 2018 360(6392), 987-992.