Dairy superfood must
counter ill-informed messages

By Dr Tim Mackle

November 7 2017

From biosecurity to food safety, from microbial resistance to the environment – and the anti-dairy lobby – it was all on the table at the 2017 International Dairy Federation World Dairy Summit in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Along with several other New Zealand dairy leaders including Federated Farmers and dairy companies, I attended the 2017 conference to learn about the latest thinking, and the collective challenges being faced in the leading dairy nations of the world.

No real surprise, but gratifying to know that here in New Zealand we’re up with the play – and in some areas leading the play – in terms of pasture-based farm systems and on-farm sustainability initiatives.

And much of what tests us here in New Zealand also occupies our dairy cohorts in other dairying countries.

What I’ve returned home with, is fresh determination that we must make every effort to secure consumer confidence, both about the integrity of the dairy sector, and the quality of dairy foods.

Dairy UK chairman Paul Vernon said that the world and the dairy sector have changed massively over the past 30 years, and the way we communicate with consumers has changed too.

He told the conference that dairy is a superfood, and we need to ensure that this message is heard loud and clear by consumers who are under a constant barrage of misleading and ill-informed messages about dairy.

One of our challenges here in New Zealand is to ensure Kiwi consumers can find their way through the bombardment and know the truth – that there is scientific evidence to prove dairy products constitute some of the most nutritious foods available for human consumption.  But that alone won’t be enough to ensure dairy remains a growing component of consumer diets.

As is the case here, anti-dairy sentiment captures attention, and is a popular subject on social media which, of course, allows for personal opinion and often misleading comment.  Like us, our counterparts in other countries often find negative commentary is based on personal preferences, such as veganism, or personal gain, as in commentators doubling as consultants to commercial interests.  Whatever the driver for anti-farming sentiment, the global dairy sector must work collectively to ensure balance is heard both in New Zealand and abroad where 95 percent of our customers and consumers are based.

For us in New Zealand right now it’s easy to get a little overly focussed on domestic issues like the change of Government and the uncertainty and opportunity that brings.  That’s why it is so important for our farming leaders to attend conferences like this to get some global perspective.

To date, much of the debate and focus around environmental sustainability in New Zealand has been on water quality.  At a global level, it’s climate change, water availability, then water quality. We will likely see a greater focus on these from the new Government, reflecting the growing international concerns, which are compounded by geo-political issues.

New Zealand is a proud dairying nation, and we are recognised and admired, but also surprisingly feared by some of our global competitors, partly because we have managed our way through adversity over many decades  – without direct Government support or large domestic markets.

Even our collective support for industry good investment and activity through DairyNZ is something most other dairy nations haven’t quite emulated.

When it comes to the global dairy sector, the chair of the Australian cheese company, Bega, Barry Irvine, told the conference “competition is good, it drives innovation”.

But it’s not competition with ourselves that we face on many of the big strategic issues like climate change or animal care – we need to tackle these together as an industry.

Dr Tim Mackle

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