Milk is one of the world's most popular commodities ©kiankhoon/123RF
Milk is one of the world's most popular commodities ©kiankhoon/123RF

Global focus on… milk

Known in Mediaeval times as the virtuous white liquor, this ubiquitous beverage seems to fall in and out of favour – but never goes completely out of fashion

Background
Dairy farming is almost as old as human history. People have kept livestock for thousands of years, using the milk from cows (and goats, sheep, moose, yaks and camels) to produce cheese, butter and yoghurt in many forms. 

Keeping it fresh
In 1863, while trying to improve the taste of wine, French chemist Louis Pasteur accidentally developed a method of heat-treatment that killed bacteria in milk. This led to a longer shelf life and a safer product.

Supply chain efficiency
As demand for milk increased, its distribution networks spread. During the 19th century, the UK railways ensured the delivery of what had grown to be considered an essential daily commodity.

Human consumption
There is a debate on whether humans should drink cows’ milk at all. We are born with the enzyme lactase that allows us to digest milk, but it declines as we get older. Historically, a genetic mutation is thought to have enabled adults to start producing it, and thus use milk as a source of nutrition – though some scientists claim the health benefits are not as great as previously thought.

Demand for dairy
While global consumption of dairy products is growing, demand in the UK has declined (a drop of 30% over the last 20 years). Concerns over hormones in milk, and a fear of allergies, have been blamed. An FSA survey found 8% of 16-24-year olds believe they’re allergic.

Production
The world’s biggest producers of cows’ milk are the US (91.3bn kg), India (60.6bn kg) and China (35.7bn kg). India tops the list if you count milk from other animals, as it also produces a large amount of buffalo milk. 

New technology
Automated milking, micro-sensor technology, blockchain and satellite systems are changing the dairy industry, enabling farmers to be more productive, as well as providing welcome supply chain transparency. 

Milk substitutes
Dairy-free alternatives to milk are on the rise, along with veganism, environmental concerns and a more health-conscious attitude to nutrition. Soy, almond, coconut, cashew and hemp milk are all increasingly available.    

What They Say

“Since we’ve put the robots in, we can actually spend more quality time with the cows. The cows have become so chilled, so relaxed.”
Chris Barge, Lancashire farmer, on the benefits of robotic milking

“Every single objective indicator says that in the case of dairy you cannot have a system that operates without production controls. If you try, you’re basically consigning your farmers to a life of penury”
Bruce Muirhead, Professor of history, University of Waterloo, Canada, on dairy deregulation 

“The impacts have been hugely challenging… normally this time of the year is the cheapest time to produce milk – but already we’re half way through the stocks we’ve built up for the winter months.”
Michael Oakes, Chair of NFU Dairy Board, on UK’s dry summer 

Analysis
While milk may have its ups and downs, demand for dairy is not in decline. Despite prices being low due to global overproduction (in 2017, US farmers dumped almost 100m gallons of surplus milk) and the removal of EU quotas in 2015, the value of exports has accelerated. Demand is also expected to increase by 2.5% a year to 2020, driven by urbanisation and the rising incomes of consumers in emerging markets. In the face of trade wars, tariffs and regulations designed to support sustainability goals, a 2018 Deloitte analysis of the sector advises producers to prioritise product quality as well as supply chain collaboration, and to invest in innovation to raise profit margins.

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