The DiEET model to estimate the relative environmental footprint of milk and plant-based beverages

Consumer based agriculture has become all more relevant in today’s production and consumption trends. Although little scientific literature exists to quantify consumer trend shifts in South Africa in the last few decades, the result of marketing and consumer awareness (or the lack thereof) towards animal welfare and livestock practices is evident. The availability and subsequent demand of vegetable-based proteins and dairy has increased both in online marketing and in physical availability in supermarkets.

This would not, at first glance, pose a direct threat to the livestock industry, as diversity is generally beneficial to the agricultural sector. However, the basis of these consumer shifts away from animal-based products is rarely only due to allergies such as lactose intolerance. Rather, misconceptions have lead consumers and policy-makers to believe that animal-based products are one of the leading causes for climate change and that plant-based alternatives, on the other hand, are the solution to climate mitigation and animal welfare. Although some research exists to prove otherwise, this research is not readily available to the consumer, hence limiting them from making educated consumer decisions.

Consumer perspectives increase the demand for plant-based alternatives, or for specifically labelled animal-based products like “sustainably sourced”, “hormone-free”, “free-range”. These specific demand increases require a shift in livestock practices and in the supply of the producers to be able to provide the demanded product, whether this is justifiable or not. The practicality and feasibility of this is questionable. Large farming operations invest an incredible amount of money over years to ensure their farming operation is as efficient as possible. Over-night changes of an entire production system is not possible for such farms, as it would require an equally large or larger amount of financial input to adapt their production system accordingly. Commercial farmers supplying to the broader population hence suffer economic losses either by losing a portion of their market-share, as their consumers shift their consumption movements, or due to adapting to the consumer-trends in order to maintain market share, whilst operating at a loss.

This in itself poses a threat to livestock production, as some policies are generalised and not economically feasible for commercial farmers, yet have become necessary for farmers to stay relevant in the consumer market. Apart from the risk of economic loss to the farmers, the whole industry may suffer a loss should such policies and practices be implemented without proper research and regulation. If these practices and consumer-demands are to be forced on farmers, whether directly or indirectly, it is imperative to have science-based research and a universal understanding of what each means.

Currently, no specific standards exists in South Africa or globally which farmers, producers and consumers can use to measure their decisions or production systems and determine the feasibility and sustainability thereof. The aim of this project is thus to identify and compare the key indicators of sustainable dairy production and its plant-based alternatives from an environmental perspective and consumer perspective. Examples of such indicators are energy usage, energy source (fossil fuels, gas etc.), water usage, chemical waste, recyclable waste, nutrient density and quality of the final product, only to name a few. Once measured and collected, the various indicators will be used in establishing a sustainability model for South African milk and plant-based alternatives. This may assist both dairy farmer and milk producers to guide their operations towards a least-cost and smallest environmental impact solution. Furthermore, the hope is that the outcome of this model is made readily available on all packaging to guide consumers and policy-makers alike towards a sustainable future.