Glass to grass goodness: Ireland’s dairy opportunity


In our Zoom for Thought on July 14th, 2020, UCD Discovery Director Prof Patricia Maguire - and her co-host Prof Dolores O’Riordan, Director of UCD Institute of Food & Health - spoke to Zoe Kavanagh (pictured),CEO of the National Dairy Council, about “Glass to grass goodness: Ireland’s dairy opportunity”. The event was hosted as part of the UCD Plotting the Future: Towards Sustainability programme. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts. 


Lucky Cows

Our grass-fed herd is the toast of the global dairy industry. “The animal is outdoors, the Irish cow has the best lifestyle among its dairy peers in the world because it’s a very natural system.” As dairy consumers look for reassurance that their food is natural and ethically produced, “grass-based is the best you’re going to get”


Meeting Targets

Ireland’s 18,000 dairy farmers must “find a way of taking five million tonnes of carbon emissions out of the system between now and 2030”. Teagasc has identified 27 steps to reduce the dairy farming impact on climate, including recommending a soil pH of 6.3 to ensure maximum grass growth. “Every ten days of extra grass growth reduces the carbon emissions by 1.7%.” Kavanagh urges using rainfall more productively and switching from broad brush application of fertilisers to a more targeted application.


Lactose Intolerance

Some 4% of Irish people are lactose intolerant - “but that doesn’t mean you have to exclude dairy from your diet”. Kavanagh says you can still have up to 12g of dairy a day without experiencing discomfort. In other parts of the world, where people don’t have our long tradition of eating dairy, up to 65% of the population is lactose intolerant. “The dairy sector has been very proactive in responding to that in terms of product innovation, such as lactose-free milk.” 


Brexit Versus Covid-19

With farmers still able to work safely and collect and process milk, Kavanagh sees the Covid-19 pandemic as “a short-term challenge but one that can be managed”. A “bigger challenge” is Brexit. “It looks as if we’re facing a no trading deal Brexit and that has massive implications for the agricultural sector because so much of our dairy and beef goes to the UK.” The dairy industry would have to absorb tariffs which are “so significant they wipe out any margin that’s there in the sector”.


Food as Medicine

NDC research since Covid-19 has found the “young, questioning consumer” increasingly turning to expertise online “particularly in the area of health and immunology”. They also found that 40% of Irish under-35s have upped their dairy intake since March. “I think having experienced a pandemic we have a population now looking for facts and evidence,” says Kavanagh, adding that the health benefits of dairy are “underpinned by a lot of research and science”. She believes “plant-based pretenders” are “nutritionally incomparable” with dairy in the “food as medicine” space. “So I see an opportunity ahead which I probably wouldn’t have said to you six months ago.” 


Milk Myths

Kavanagh finds it “frustrating on a commercial basis to find these plant-based products masquerading as milk on a shelf, double the price, quarter of the nutrition and they’re almost wearing the emperor’s new clothes in terms of image trumps science”. She says non-dairy alternatives can be less climate-friendly “when you compare from farm to glass the carbon footprint with an almond tree in California to glass”.


Vegan Disruption

She describes the increase in veganism as “a disruptive play in the dairy sector” and says animal-sourced protein in your diet might provide “a survivor advantage”. She recommends “everything in moderation”. The consumer has 21 formal eating occasions in the week - breakfast, lunch and dinner - and a further 21 snacking occasions. While advocating choice she describes dairy as “your desert island food because it is packed with macro and micro nutrients”.


Carbon Farming

Kavanagh hopes our dairy farmers also become carbon farmers in the future, through cultivating hedgerows and grasslands. “You may find that rather than being net emitters, they’re net absorbers. That’s a very interesting space for Ireland to stand clearly in.”