The Dairy sector is suffering from the growing trend towards veganism, driven by concerns about both its health and environmental impacts. Health practitioners focus on the high fat content of many dairy products, while environmentalists raise concerns about the sector’s significant carbon and water footprint. As dairy processors respond to their critics they should be promoting the benefits of developing a more circular economy.
It’s good to see major producers like Arla taking a lead, announcing this week that they are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. While milk is a cornerstone of the global agri-food sector, it is being targeted by campaigners because of its perceived impact on the environment. The humble cow is singled out as a major source of methane emissions, although they efficiently convert grass into a valuable food. Dairy sales remain strong, even with competition from a growing number of dairy and milk substitutes.
A largely natural product (about 87% water and 13% milk solids), milk contains important nutrients in the form of proteins and carbohydrates, plus fats and vitamins, while its calcium is readily absorbed by the body. The dairy industry is fighting back to promote these qualities. But does this justify the wider impact milk production has on the environment, especially with the scale of many modern farms and processing facilities? The industry should show consumers and regulators that it has a greener future by taking more action to curb its environmental impact.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report warned that greenhouse gas emissions risk the future of our planet. This requires action across all industry sectors. Alongside investment in cleaner energy and reducing carbon emissions, milk processors can also promote the re-use of water. Dairy production has a high water footprint, making an even stronger case for investing in resource efficiency within a more circular economy.
Deploying innovative water re-use and bio-energy solutions on milk processing sites will facilitate this but requires renewed support for sustainable technologies. The dairy industry needs to meet new expectations for resource efficiency, including water recovery. Bio-energy solutions can boost both nutrient and grey water re-use, improving process efficiency on milk processing sites.
Bio-energy plants that extract the latent energy from organic residues can be installed on larger sites of major multinationals and smaller producers of premium dairy products. On new and existing sites, rather than discard process residues, dairy companies should be converting them into energy and re-using grey water. With milk comprising 87% water, the latter is especially important.
Installing decentralised bio-energy on creamery sites to replace fossil fuels should be at the core of the global dairy sector’s long-term strategy. While requirements for sites that supply liquid milk or commodity products may vary from those for premium products or SME sites, they can all benefit from greater water and energy efficiency. Clearfleau and our colleagues at EnviroChemie are well placed to provide integrated on-site solutions both at a large and smaller, modular scale.
Process residues can be better exploited within a low carbon economy and the need for resource efficiency must be communicated to policy makers (in the industry, regulators and Government). Support for innovative use of on-site technologies could include a carbon emissions-based incentive regime for businesses, in particular SMEs, that invest in decentralised bio-energy solutions.
The biogas sector must also improve its own carbon efficiency. It must shift its focus away from over-large plants and relatively inefficient CHP engines for electricity generation to providing low carbon heat on industrial sites. It can also make use of the gas as bio-fuel for the trucks that transport food from farm to consumer.
This year, Clearfleau and EnviroChemie will be attending international dairy sector conferences to present case studies of projects that are improving resource efficiency on creamery sites. We have exciting dairy sector projects in the pipeline in the UK and Europe and in the southern hemisphere.