Alarm bells over the threats to the global milk industry from the rise in veganism and animal welfare activism rang out repeatedly during two full days at the Semex dairy conference in Glasgow.
UK dairymen, who were already concerned about the onslaught on their businesses before they arrived, went home under no illusion that they now have to unite to counter growing criticism of agriculture.
However, while the high-profile speakers were clear about the dangers facing milk production, they were short of practical suggestions for reversing the trend.
Global giant Arla’s new UK managing director, Ash Amirahmadi, pointed out that celebrity A-listers, boxers, rappers and musicians had “normalised” veganism and made it exciting.
“The dangerous thing they’ve done is that they’ve cast doubt on our industry,” he said.
“They’ve consistently put a question mark about the meat and dairy industries in consumers’ minds, and they’re not going to stop because they really believe they’re on to something.”
He warned the industry to be prepared for the next wave of investigation, particularly into dairy farming’s use of antibiotics and said the Dairy UK promotional body had already introduced Milk Sure, an industry training course to help farmers avoid medicine residues in milk.
Mr Amirahmadi said: “We need to protect the industry but we can’t just win on a protect strategy, we need to promote and make the industry exciting.
“We haven’t yet been exposed on antibiotics and we could be – it could be the next one coming down the line.”
He challenged the audience and said: “I know it’s on your minds and you’re taking it seriously, but what are you really doing as an industry in a unified, external, active way?”
In her address, NFU president Minette Batters called for “zero tolerance” of the animal rights movement and an end to the undermining and harassment of sustainable dairy production, but admitted that new ways of selling the industry had to be found, including the better use of labelling.
“We need to restore the pride and strength in the industry,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sue McCloskey, one of the biggest dairy farmers in America, explained how her family have turned Fair Oaks Farms into an agritourism attraction, complete with a hotel.
She emphasised the importance of using social media, but insisted that farmers should not engage in “counter-bashing”.
“Stick to the facts – that’s what will shine through,” she said
“It gives you a level of trust with the consumer. And be proactive, tell your story, because in future provenance will become as important as product.”