One in six pints of milk produced around the world is lost or wasted, according to research conducted at Edinburgh University.
Sixteen percent of dairy products – 116m tonnes – is lost or discarded globally each year, according to Prof Peter Alexander, a member of the newly formed Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. He calculated that retailers, distributors and consumers are responsible for half of this waste, throwing away roughly 60m tonnes of dairy a year.
About 55m tonnes are lost before they even reach a store – during production and distribution – due to spoilage and waste at the farm, or while the milk is being distributed and exported abroad.
However, some analysts believe dairy waste figures could be as high as 30% if further inefficiencies such as flooding foreign markets, using milk as animal feed and overconsumption, are taken into account.
In many developing countries, the percentage of milk lost from farm to store is much higher than in more economically developed countries, due to difficulties in storing and transporting products. For example, 15% of Oman’s milk is lost at the farm level, compared with 0% in Sweden, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In more developed countries, such as the UK, milk and dairy tend to get thrown away at the retailer and consumer level. According to Wrap, the UK government’s waste reduction body, a fifth of all food waste in the UK is dairy.
Europe significantly increased its production of milk in 2015 when the European milk quota was lifted, which had limited the amount farmers could produce. Farmers across Europe rushed to increase their output to maximise profits at the same time demand for dairy fell in Asia, particularly in China and Russia. European dairy markets flooded, causing what some have called a “milk price crisis”.
It's estimated that major production increases in this period led to a surplus of 11m tonnes on the world market. The European commission has taken some action to temper the effects of market liberalisation. Since July 2015, it has bought around 380,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder from overproduction into public storage – known as a demand intervention scheme. The European commission is now trying to sell this powder, but as supply increases, prices fall. This powder is now sold at “dumping prices” in Africa, in direct competition with local producers. Since 2009, skimmed milk powder exports have increased three-fold according to a study published by Oxfam and SOS Faim, and the market is forecast to grow by 4% next year.
In Burkina Faso, the average shop price for a litre of locally produced milk is 600 CFA (80p) whereas milk produced from imported powder costs only 225 CFA (30p).
Bocar Diaw, president of the Senegalese national federation of local milk producers (Fenafils), expressed his concern about this surge in European exports, telling a delegation of EU policymakers last year: “Overproduction must be regulated within the European Union – stop relocating your problems to West Africa.”
Western lawmakers seem unperturbed, however, and are altering regulatory systems in the EU and US to make it easier to export dairy around the world.
Around 82m tonnes (11%) of milk is used as animal feed globally. It’s viewed as a form of wasteful inefficiency by some analysts, as cow milk contains less energy and protein than livestock feeds. Alexander attributes 67m tonnes of waste to this use.
He calculates that a further 53m tonnes of milk wasted each year globally is due to overconsumption, or the general public consuming about 10% more than they actually need. “This overconsumption could be argued to be more damaging to society than discarded food waste due to a combination of both environmental and health costs,” he said.