Not milk?

Stefan Kühn

The story goes that Henry Schwartz’ grandfather bought a herd of cows in Manhattan in the early 1900’s and walked them across the Williamsburg Bridge, all the way to the family farm in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in Queens. There, his grandfather’s dairy farm grew and flourished, producing milk for nearly one hundred years. But in 2016, at the age of 83, Schwartz decided it was time to make a change.

The owner of New York-based Elmhurst Dairy had seen demand for milk drop year after year. A combination of lactose intolerance and heightened interest in plant-based milks were turning customers away from dairy and toward “milk” made from nuts and oats.

In 2016, Schwartz ended dairy milk production and in a transformative move, transitioned his business Elmhurst Dairy into Elmhurst Milked. “It was time to reevaluate the past and start creating the food traditions that would carry us into the future,” said Schwartz.

By 2017, Elmhurst was producing plant-based milks and is now a sector leader. As this market continues to grow and the demand for dairy products continues to decline, there is an opportunity to create and expand plant-based milk offerings. 

The Giacomazzi Dairy, a 125-year-old dairy company in California, is seizing this opportunity. Just last week the Giacomazzi family announced they would be ending dairy production and plans to more than double it’s already 400 acres of almond trees. In an interview, one dairy farmer advised that, “you’re better off putting your money into trees…almonds, pistachios, grapes. There’s a lot of alternatives that provide a higher return than milking cows.”

The stories of the Schwartz family and the Giacomazzi family are especially relevant now. The dairy industry is struggling. While 14 percent of New York State farms produce dairy—predominantly family-owned and operated dairy producers with 26,000 employees—the current industry faces many challenges. Traditional dairy milk sales have steadily declined since 2005. In 2018, the Dairy Farmers of America reported a $1.1 billion loss and a recent report by RethinkX predicts that by 2030 the demand for dairy will decline by 90 percent in the United States.

Though dairy milk is often regarded as necessary for bone and general health, a growing body of evidence suggests otherwise. Approximately 65 percent of the population is lactose intolerant (disproportionately people of color). A 12-year study reveals that hip and bone fracture rates are higher in women who consume three or more servings of milk a day than in those who consume little or no milk. The great news is that the nutrients found in dairy milk can be obtained through plant-based milks and other plant sources, without the harmful saturated fat. In addition to plant-based milks, almonds, broccoli, collards, kale, papaya, sesame seeds, spinach, and tofu, are just a handful of the many calcium-rich plant-based foods. A whole-food, plant-based diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole-grains is proven to prevent and reverse many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. A diet including dairy milk is not.

Our planet’s health is also at stake. We are on track towards a 1.5 C temperature rise, an increase that could cause irreversible damage. Dairy produces 18.9 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. To break it down: a liter of dairy milk takes more than three times the water to produce than it would for the same amount of soy milk. The statistics on greenhouse gas emission are also staggering: 1 calorie of milk protein requires 14 calories of fossil fuel, where just 0.26 calories of fossil fuel are expended for the same in soy milk. Just as dairy farmers hope to leave a thriving family business to their children, it is imperative that we leave a habitable planet to all children.

The rapid growth of the plant-based dairy alternative market can be credited to these health and environmental motives, among others.  Plant-based dairy alternative consumption is skyrocketing. Nielsen Data reported plant-based milk sales increased 3 percent in 2017 and 9 percent in 2018. This market is expected to reach $34 billion by 2024.

According to the RethinkX report, “wider economic benefits will accrue from the reduction in the cost of food in the form of increased disposable incomes and from the wealth, jobs, and taxes that come from leading the way in modern food technologies.” This is expected to be a multi-trillion dollar industry that will employ at least one million workers. Regions that lead the modern food disruption will benefit the most.

Existing dairy producers can and should be part of the transition from dairy to plant-based milks. Just as horse carriage drivers progressed alongside technological and social changes to become automobile drivers, dairy producers’ knowledge and skills are a competitive advantage in the transition towards plant-based dairy alternatives. Providing farmers with the support necessary to make sustainable transitions possible is imperative. Investing in such initiatives will only serve us well in the future.

The shift to plant-based milks should be seen as an opportunity. Fighting the proposed ban of chocolate milk in New York City schools will not reverse the tide and save the dairy industry; rather it will continue to feed the health and climate crises facing our communities. Dairy farming has been part of our culture for a long time, but having the courage to reflect and make necessary changes for the betterment of society is even more fundamental to American culture.

To restore and prevent further damage to our physical and planetary health, we must invest in transition initiatives. The burden of change should not fall only on farmers, but it should be one that we all carry together as allies in pursuit of a healthier world.

Eric L. Adams is Brooklyn borough president.