Baristas beware: the dairy industry is going into battle to ban the use of the word milk in conjunction with soy, almond, coconut or other plant-based coffee-whitening beverages.

According to lobby group Australian Farmers, formed by the National Farmers Federation (NFF), the industry is concerned consumers may become confused and miss out on the nutrients contained in cow’s milk if they choose a non-dairy product.

The National Party also this month passed a resolution to lobby for the word milk to be limited to dairy products.

It might sound like a storm in a coffee cup but there is a precedent. In Canada, it is illegal to label a product soy milk, oat milk or rice milk. Instead, the word “beverage” must replace the word “milk” to label non-dairy alternatives.

It’s not only the plant-based milks some Australian primary producers have a beef with – plant-based meat alternatives are also a sore point.

Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie told the ABC that consumers might be mislead by the use of the word “meat” to describe plant-based alternatives, suggesting that some producers were using misleading marketing.

“At the moment, there’s ambiguity and, I would suggest, deliberate attempts by some of these plant-based protein manufacturers to trade on the good, honest work of our meat producers or our milk producers,” McKenzie said.

In the US, there is a fierce battle between groups supporting traditional food producers and those involved in the production of meat and dairy alternatives. It has reached a point where, in some states, “rice” made of plants like cauliflower or broccoli can’t be called “rice”.

Paleo fans and lentil-burger lovers, you have been warned.

The debate about milk relies on a rather slipshod understanding of history and global culture. The Smithsonian Magazine – experts in both – reports that the English word milk, according to its Latin origins, means anything that produces a white liquid. The Latin root for “lettuce” is “lact” – as in “lactate” – because of its white, milky juice.

In the Middle Ages, adults did not drink cow’s milk but almond milk was popular because it was permitted on the twice-weekly fast days imposed by the Christian Church (which prohibited consumption of animal products).

Farmers grow lentils, chickpeas and soybeans too

The NFF faction backing the dairy protectionist movement appears to be neglecting other segments of the federation’s membership that grows soy, almonds and other commodities used for producing foods and beverages.

That sector is expected to grow significantly and produce new job opportunities in the years to come, with a recent Global Table event held in Melbourne told that the plant-based meat sector could be worth up to $3 billion by 2030.

Modelling conducted by Deloitte Access Economics for Food Frontier, a think tank for alternative proteins, forecast the sector to grow exponentially as more Australians and New Zealanders adopt dietary recommendations being promoted by public health advocates and environmentalists.

Food Frontier’s report says the plant-based meat sector already generates $150 million a year in retail sales.

By 2030, the sector is projected to grow to between $398 million and almost $3 billion a year in economic value, generate between $1.4 billion and $4.6 billion in retail sales, and create more than 6000 full-time jobs.

Food Frontier chief executive Thomas King says the positive outlook comes off the back of a “wave of new plant-based products” that “aim to mimic the sensory experience of eating conventional meat with fewer environmental and health impacts”.

“Put simply, we’re facing a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for Australia to become a global plant-protein powerhouse, and the great news is we already have the intellectual and infrastructure assets to seize it.”

What about food waste?

The research showed that about one-third of Australians are limiting their consumption of animal-based meat due to awareness of the impact of their food choices on personal health, animal wellbeing and the planet.

Recent warnings about reducing meat consumption from sources as diverse as the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, EAT-Lancet scientists, and the Australian Heart Foundation, also give Food Frontiers cause for optimism.

Former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in his keynote address to the Global Table event, highlighted the importance of tackling waste and fast-tracking a shift to renewable energy to ensure global appetites are met.

Food waste also needs to be tackled. Wealthy countries waste a third of their food at the same time as millions of children around the world die of starvation, according to Kerry.

“Right now, today, every one in nine people wakes up in the morning with hunger pains and they go to bed with an empty stomach. We have to increase food production by 60 per cent between now and 2050 just to keep pace,” said Kerry.

“We have to become better stewards of the land. The truth is we are not smart enough that way.”

Kerry’s comments are echoed in a recent report to the UN General Assembly by UN special rapporteur, David R Boyd, on Human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

One of the fundamental human rights – the right to enough food – is at risk due to climate change. Food production and food security are affected by shifting precipitation patterns, higher temperatures, extreme weather events, changing sea ice conditions, droughts, floods, algal blooms and salinisation, the report says.

“Changes in climate are already undermining the production of major crops, such as wheat, rice and maize. Without adaptation, or where adaptations fall short, this is expected to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme. In the oceans, temperature changes, bleaching of coral reefs and ocean acidification are affecting fisheries.”

The report notes that a decade of progress to combat global starvation and malnutrition has begun to reverse.

Climate crisis shrinking Australian food supplies

In Australia, the effects of the current drought are already reducing harvests of key food crops, and prices of meat, dairy, bread and some horticultural products are rising.

Now the soy sector is hitting the wall, with crops either dramatically reduced or failing altogether in Australia’s major soy-growing regions in the Riverina, Northern NSW and Queensland.

Many Australian manufacturers of soy-based products including soy milk, tofu and tempeh, are struggling to source supplies, according to an ABC report. The shrinking pool of raw materials also coincides with booming domestic demand for non-animal derived milk and protein products.

For example, prices for Australian-grown soybeans have risen from between $400 and $500 a tonne to between $1,500 to $1,600 a tonne.

Manufacturers such as Vitasoy, which only uses non-GMO soybeans in its beverage products, are having to look offshore for supplies.

The soy crisis and other food price hikes might be part of the reason The Australia Institute’s recent Climate of the Nation 2019 report, which surveys Australian attitudes, found that the impact of climate change on crops and food supply is of vital concern.

Of those surveyed, 81 per cent said their number one concern was the threat to food supplies. People were also worried about animal and plant extinctions and water shortages.

Acceptance of the reality of climate change has reached an all-time high, with 77 per cent of respondents agreeing it is occurring. Of those people, 80 per cent believe the impacts are already being experienced in the form of droughts, bushfires, flooding and extreme heat events.

So – there’s another inquiry

The issues around producing food in perilous climate times might be hard to stomach for some but they haven’t deterred the Federal Government’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources from this month launching an inquiry into whether is was possible for Australia’s agriculture sector to be worth $100 billion by 2030.

“The global demand for food is projected to grow 54 per cent by 2050,” said Rick Wilson, Chair of the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee.

“Australian agriculture is well placed to make a significant contribution to supplying this growing demand and in the process increase its value and profitability,” he said.

“Whether it be improving market access, investing in marketing, or embracing innovative technologies that increase the efficiency, sustainability, and productivity of our farms, the Committee is interested in all the opportunities available to drive growth in Australian agricultural businesses in the coming decades.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference are vague:

“The Committee will inquire into and report on, the opportunities and impediments to the primary production sectors realising their ambition to achieve a combined $100 billion value of production by 2030.”

The deadline for submissions is 14 October 2019. Have your say here.

One reply on “Dust-up over food labelling obscures bigger food crisis”

  1. Agreed, it’s been a really stupid lobby group campaign which is trying to outlaw the association of white liquid & milk.
    I’m a keen supporter of the soy bean industry too. I also really love all our fruit and vegetable farmers a bit more than the meat & livestock farmers.
    The national party really are a sad bunch

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