Almost half of UK shoppers, 49%, say they are willing to make ‘big changes’ to their diets based on what they read on social media. Indeed, 34% of people admit to making choices about their diet based ‘purely’ on information they see on social networks, new research commissioned by dairy farmer cooperative Arla revealed.
Three-quarters – 75% - of participants in the One Poll study said they are concerned about the future of the world we live in and 12% claim to consider the 'environmental impact of food alone' to inform purchase decisions. But, with two-in-five of us saying we are unsure of what makes a ‘sustainable diet’, the way that the discussion is framed on social media has a significant influence.
Dairy faces the court of public opinion
Arla found that ‘instead of relying on facts’ about the food production process and ‘considering in detail’ what makes a sustainable diet and what food groups are ‘good’ for us, 'snap decisions' are being made based ‘largely on popular opinion’.
For example, 18% of people said they rely on social media as a legitimate source of information, with 15% reporting that they consume news through memes. Meanwhile, a significant number of people – 36% - are passing what they read on social media off as their own opinions, amplifying messages that are already popular in digital networks.
It appears that consumers from Generation Z – born from the late 1990s to the 2010s – are particularly influenced by this dynamic. In total, 55% of this cohort said they use social media to inform dietary decisions. Although the data showed that 70% of Gen Z would prefer to continue to drink dairy, 57% said they plan to give it up in the next year.
A total of 49% of Gen Z-ers said they ‘felt ashamed’ to order dairy in public in front of their peers. This compares to 8% of people across all age groups. As a result, 29% said they order dairy alternatives in public and revert to dairy at home. Across age groups, only 12% of consumers admitted doing this.
Don’t 'cancel' dairy, Arla argues
Currently, there isn’t much of a consensus about what makes food ‘sustainable’. For 54% of people, they associate sustainable diets with locally sourced food and 35% claim it means choosing nutrition that has been produced 'with the least environmental impact'. The role of animal agriculture was nevertheless high on people’s radars, with 41% stating that swapping animal protein with plant-based alternatives is the sustainable choice. But while 27% of respondents said cutting animal products from their diet completely is the ‘right thing to do’, 65% of people said they ‘feel pressured to’ but ‘don’t actually want to’ give up dairy.
Discussing the perspective of its 2,100 UK farmers, Arla said it wants to explain that ‘having a positive environmental impact is not as simple as cancelling food groups entirely’. Rather, the dairy major suggested, a balance needs to be struck and consumers should look at the ‘bigger picture’, from food security to rural livelihoods and the work farmers are doing to tackle emissions and support natural environments.
“We know that farming is not without its challenges and when it comes to dairy farming and the climate crisis, we have many hills to climb to reach our target of achieving carbon net zero by 2050. That is why Arla farmers are taking action and working to drive real change through several initiatives to reduce emissions, for a stronger planet for years to come. As a cooperative, Arla has multiple farmer standards that we continuously challenge ourselves against, with everything from animal welfare, quality of our products and our environmental impact,” explained Graham Wilkinson, Senior Group Agriculture Director at Arla.
“We are constantly measuring ourselves against those standards to ensure our customers can trust that we are aiming for the highest quality products and adding this to the natural nutrition we can get from dairy.”
According to Arla, the next decade will be a ‘defining’ one in the health of our planet and in the availability of affordable quality nutrition.
Arla’s farmers already produce milk with around half the emissions of the global average, data from the company suggests. And, through Arla’s climate checks programme, the cooperative's farmers 'are on a journey to reduce emissions even further'.
The company has identified five 'universal levers' that its farmer-owners can use to cut their carbon footprints. This includes: better feed efficiency to improve milk yields; precision feeding to reduce surplus protein in feed rations; a healthy and long life for the cow to improve milk yield ; precise fertilizer management to reduce nitrogen surplus from feed production; and better land use management to ensure better crop yields. To date, efforts include initiatives like implementing slurry application techniques, used by 53% of UK farmers, to help reduce air born emissions by between 30-90%.
‘All or nothing’ approach ‘not necessary’
For Debbie Wilkins, an Arla farmer in Gloucestershire, dairy farming is frequently misrepresented on social media.
“Dairy farming can often be misunderstood, particularly when snap decisions get made based on what we see on social media. When this starts to play a role in our decision-making process, particularly when it comes to our health and wellbeing, it’s important we take a step back and look at the whole picture. Considering things like, the love I have for my farm, for my cows, all nature, and the environment when viewing the industry as a whole,” she explained.
In particular, Wilkins stressed the positive nutritional impact of dairy consumption as well as the contribution farmers can make to preserving biodiversity and nature and the important role the industry plays in the UK’s rural communities.
“The ‘all or nothing’ attitude so many groups and brands are pushing is not always necessary. It’s important to use the natural nutrition we have available to us, rather than relying heavily on processed foods,” she stressed.
“Dairy farming is not as black and white as our beloved herds and it’s worrying how dairy can be so easily misunderstood. As an important part of our farming heritage, farmers are committed to nature - from protecting biodiversity, to acting as beacons of local communities and providing quality, natural and affordable nutrition to the nation. All food production will create emissions, but it is important to consider the nutritional value of the food as well as how it supports the natural environment.”