David Dobbin, chief executive of dairy co-operative United Dairy Farmers, said farmers faced a huge drop in demand as young people drink less milk than their parents and grandparents did.
Speaking at the European Federation of Animal Science conference in Belfast, Dobbin said producers and processors needed to think of new ways to make dairy more appealing to young people who will become the next generation of shoppers.
“In the past children consumed a lot of dairy, but today’s children and teens don’t necessarily eat it,” he told delegates. “It’s a demographic time bomb. If we don’t address the problem now, then we are facing a fall-off in demand for dairy.”
Dobbin said the Global Dairy Platform – an organisation working to promote the diary industry across the world – was set to launch a “three-a-day” campaign to promote the nutritional benefits of consuming more dairy products.
“The problem we face is that we have some health professionals who see dairy as the enemy,” he added.
“People wrongly assume that dairy is bad for them because of its fat content, without considering the other nutritional benefits it offers. We have to fight that cause and encourage people to eat more. If we can win the hearts and minds of consumers then it will create life-long habits for dairy consumption.”
While there were concerns over a drop in demand, Dobbin told delegates that UK producers had the potential to increase production significantly in the next decade.
“Currently improvement rates are 1.4 per cent in the UK and 2 per cent in Northern Ireland, but with genetic improvement alone there’s the possibility to increase production by 2.5 per cent a year,” he said.
“I definitely think there’s the potential for a 3 per cent increase in productivity for the next ten to fifteen years.”
Part of the challenge for producers was to be able to better handle market volatility so they were in a position to respond to market signals.
“One option is through financial instruments, but we should also look at the role of contacts to protect farmers and ensure prices are consistent so that we can help create more stability,” he said.
“The major issue for the dairy sector is improving sustainability. We need to be more market-led, we need to be better – not just bigger – and we need to be more competitive in Europe.”