Increasing trust in dairy is essential for food security

Making dairy products that meet normal health and safety standards is a complicated process. It requires special tools, knowledge, and unwavering support from the industry and local governments. In order to help farmers have access to larger markets, Solidaridad is currently working with small milk producing clusters to develop and integrate a business model that is realistic, profitable and will increase consumer trust in the dairy products. Solidaridad’s Global Programme Manager for dairy, Catharinus Wierda, explains this economic approach to sustainability in the blog below.

Healthy dairy production requires broad support

For many people, the milk they consume is guaranteed to come with unhealthy antibiotic residues. They have to drink the milk today because it’s likely to have gone sour by tomorrow. For us in the Netherlands, such a lack of trust in our dairy products is unthinkable today. But that didn’t just happen by itself. Achieving our current level of quality was a long process and came with resistance from farmers, pressure from the government and civil society, a dioxin scandal, and a dairy sector which was increasingly willing to take the initiative. This has greatly benefited the Dutch dairy sector in its home market and generated trust in Dutch dairy products all over the world. Unfortunately, trust in dairy is not a given in many parts of the world. I’ll explain further in the examples below.

India’s willingness for dairy sector improvements

We can assume that most of India's 1.2 billion people consume milk fairly regularly, including the residues of various types of antibiotic. In this country, with the highest level of milk production in the world, most Hindu families own a few “holy” cows. Antibiotics are available on every street corner and are cheap to purchase. This means they’re readily given to cows if something is wrong with them. The milk from these cows is usually not kept separate, and carrying out checks by measuring residue levels is expensive when you have millions of small quantities of milk every day. Pesticide residues are an even more worrying problem. It is quite easy to get ahold of pesticides too, and they a
re used for various crops. The by-products of those crops often become cattle feed.

But thankfully there is growing awareness of these issues, and a will to change. For some, the melamine scandal in China feels like a kind of Sword of Damocles hanging over India’s dairy sector, only with antibiotics this time instead of melamine. The market is already responding too. Some supermarkets are taking action by buying milk from supply chains driven by the larger dairy cattle companies with stronger quality guarantees. In some parts of India there is a surplus of milk and overseas markets are sought after. Quality is pre-requisite for this.

Combining culture with commerce in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has the greatest concentration of cattle in Africa. Cows are used for various purposes including fertiliser, ploughing, dowries, meat and milk. Farmers often keep some extra beef cattle but don’t expand their dairy cattle. This is because the large number of fasting days (around 150!) among the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, wh
o comprise a large part of the population, makes it difficult to build a stable business in that sector. Sales during fasting days are unreliable and milk may or may not be collected, leading to waste. Inadequate cooling and poor hygiene during milking and transportation shortens the shelf life of the milk and makes it unsuitable for the production of long-life dairy products such as cheese or UHT milk. The milk or dairy products therefore cannot be sold after the fasting days or to Muslims in other parts of the country. Market participants are keen to change this because they are currently unable to properly serve the market or build up a relationship with farmers.

Our economic approach for sustainable production

Here at Solidaridad we are currently in talks with several dairy organizations in India and Ethiopia about introducing a “Trust Dairy” approach. This is a big step forward in the supply chain system, offering professionalization opportunities for the farmer to the processor, but not immediately on a large scale. It’s about introducing it, making it economically viable, and then scaling up.

Ideally, the farmers will form a community around this approach. Certain members of the community will become milking specialists and operate hygienically. The village milking parlours I saw in India are a good example of this. The cows turn up partly by themselves and the village milker then milks them with a milking machine, after which the milk is immediately refrigerated. This method also makes it easier to provide the farmers with support services (feed, medicines, semen, microfinancing) and to increase production.

Many sectors are ready for the next phase of food safety. It is a large, complicated challenge, but we know from experience that it can be done. – Catharinus Wierda

Working with dairy organizations, we look at how they can make additional investments in cooling and chilling, milk cans, milking facilities and services. Dairy sector actors work on adding value to the milk supply in the market and rewarding farmers for improved quality. This turns them into long-term partners for these farmers. Farmers, in turn, become motivated to further develop their dairy cattle business.

Starting small for effective integration

It is important that the model achieves initial technical and economic success before scaling up. It is also important to work with the dairy chain and potentially the government to look at how a national quality standard might be developed for everyone to work towards. This must be universal to avoid the uncertainty that comes with various different standards, and to instil confidence among consumers.

The availability of artificial fertiliser, antibiotics and pesticides have led to higher yields in agriculture and to improved food security. But they have also led to residues in dairy, chicken, fish, fruit, vegetables and tea. Awareness is growing, particularly within the civil society of these countries and through the demands of consumers who feel they deserve better. Many sectors are ready for the next phase of food safety. It is a large, complicated challenge, but we know from experience that it can be done. Let’s use our experience and expertise so that those in other places can get there faster than we did.

This article first appeared on 26 October in The Milk Story, a Dutch-language website about the dairy industry in support of a sustainable future.