You Gouda Brie Kidding: Milk Consumption Is Down but Dairy Cow Numbers Are Up?

Americans have never drank less milk and yet we’re farming more dairy cows. There’s a cheesy explanation.

By Paul Shapiro

If you follow the sustainable protein space closely, you know that the greatest success story doesn’t necessarily come from the biggest names in the field. Impressive though companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and JUST are, plant-based meat and mayo still represent a small (read: less than one percent) sliver of their total respective markets.

Rather, just take a stroll over to the dairy section and the change in the past decade is unmistakable.

As I’ve written, plant-based milks are exploding in popularity, now comprising 13 percent of the fluid milk market in the U.S. Per capita consumption of cow’s milk has been declining for decades. In fact, fluid milk consumption is at an all-time low. Not only are dairy companies investing in plant-based milks, some are simply going entirely animal-free.

You think the recent Beyond Meat IPO was impressive with its initial company valuation of $1.5 billion? (Yes, I know it’s gone up since then, and yes, I also think it was very impressive.) When dairy giant Danone acquired WhiteWave in 2017, the makers of Silk plant-based milks sold their company for a creamy $12.5 billion. That’s not a typo.

Americans are less and less thirsty for cow’s milk.

We’ve Never Drank Less Milk, Yet We’re Farming More Dairy Cows

Despite the massive shift in consumer preferences from cow’s milk to various plant milks, the number of dairy cows in the US has actually gone up in the past ten years, and the same is so with total milk production, even while per-cow milk production is up, too.

In other words, more milk is being produced, and by more dairy cows, than a decade ago (before the big boom in dairy-free alternatives).

Before you blame corn subsidies, USDA surplus buy-ups, or other market-distorting policies aimed at advantaging the dairy industry, there may be another culprit to investigate. Indeed, while fluid milk is down, milk is used for a variety of foods. And when it comes to the food that uses the most milk to produce — cheese — the fluid milk data may have been a little too gouda to be true. (In fairness, if you’re still looking for a public policy culprit, the USDA does have a program to boost cheese consumption.)

Yes, fluid milk consumption has plummeted 40 percent since 1975, but the same USDA data show that per capita cheese consumption has more than doubled in that same time period. And as data scientist Harish Sethu, PhD, points out in an insightful 2013 blog on the topic, it takes about 10 pounds of milk to produce just one pound of cheese. To make the point on cheese sharper: More milk is consumed in cheese form than as any other dairy product, including fluid milk.

It’s udderly stunning how much cheese Americans are eating.

Is a Curd in the Hand Worth Two in the Bush?

Those who believe the world would be a better place if we raised fewer animals for food have to grapple with this contrast: The success of the plant-based milk movement has coincided with an actual increase in the number of dairy cows, primarily because similar success hasn’t yet been achieved in plant-based cheeses.

To actually see a reduction in the number of dairy cows being farmed due to lower dairy demand, a curd in one hand simply isn’t enough. There are so many dairy products (and dairy butter consumption is up too, for what it’s worth) that alternatives for them must succeed, too.

Fortunately there’s a nascent revolution in plant-based cheese that’s unfolding, with industry leaders like Daiya gaining ground, higher-end products like Miyoko’s advancing too, and newcomers like Spero Foods and Eclipse Foods promising to remake the cheese aisle the way Silk and others have performed in the milk case.

Perhaps together, these companies can help make cheese grate again, and help relieve the nation’s dairy cows at the same time.

Paul Shapiro is the CEO of The Better Meat Co. and author of the Washington Post bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker. Paul-Shapiro.com

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