HEMP, hazelnut, almond, oat, rice, pea, cashew. Not long ago it was almost unheard of to follow these words with ‘milk’. Now, dairy alternatives like plant-based ‘milks’ are the pinnacle of one of the fastest-growing food movements worldwide - a diet free from dairy.

US livestock production giant Semex’s annual dairy conference starts in Glasgow today, where current industry problems will be discussed by leading figures from the trade. But while political issues like Brexit dictate the conference agenda, the cultural shift away from dairy is raising new challenges for the agricultural community.

The big issues in dairy have changed from talk of the benefits of high calcium content, to questions of sustainability, negative health effects and animal cruelty. In the last several decades, changes in dairy consumption have become clear. According to UK government figures, between 1995 and 2015, the number of UK dairy cows fell from 2.6m to 1.9m as an estimated 10 million abandoned dairy. The drop accounts for the £240 million loss in sales between 2014 and 2016. Last year saw the traditional dairy milk industry continue to decline in the UK. Global market researchers Mintel predict an 11 per cent drop in milk popularity by 2020 across western Europe. Meanwhile, other ‘milks’ - like almond, coconut and oat - show a 19.1 per cent sales increase in the past year alone.

So why are we abandoning dairy? Educational charity The Vegan Society say that there are 360% more vegans now than ten years ago. Throughout 2016 and 2017, advertising company Go Vegan World put out a series of billboards promoting veganism across Scotland’s central belt. Sandra Higgins, director of the organisation, argues that the increase in veganism is down to a number of factors. “People have access to the truth about dairy production,” she says. Higgins explained that the public were now focussed on “issues such as the rights of animal agricultural workers, including dairy farmers and slaughterhouse workers, to more ethical, less violent and dangerous conditions”.

Gary Mitchell, Vice-President of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland and proud Stranraer dairy farmer of 10 years, disagrees with the way his industry has been painted by animal rights activists.

“There’s an ideology that’s appeared, that’s very very coordinated and targets especially the younger consumer. The advertising in the black cabs in London, accusing farmers of taking calves away from their mothers. It feels like a hate crime.

“We’ve been doing this for generations and, for a UK or a Scottish farmer, our welfare standards are some of the highest in the world. The way they portray us being farmers – that we aren’t animal lovers, in some way we’re cruel, we treat animals cruelly – it’s so far from the truth.”

Edinburgh-based vegan nutritionist Claire Hider has dedicated her career to helping people make the switch to a - so-called - cruelty-free lifestyle. She believes health concerns are leading the public away from dairy.

“Cutting out dairy may be helpful for those with acne, allergies, digestive problems, sinus issues,” she said, adding, “there are also plenty of scientific papers pointing to a connection between dairy products and inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and hormonal cancers, for example of the breast and prostate.”

She also points to dairy’s potential for weight gain as a force behind the decline. “Cow’s milk contains proteins, fats and minerals in ratios that are nutritionally beneficial only to a baby calf – which is designed to grow pretty rapidly into a full-grown bovine ruminant weighing close to a ton.”

In response to fears that relying on plant-based milks reduces the calcium in your diet Hider explained that there are natural solutions. “I offer advice on alternative sources of calcium – for example tofu, almonds, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and tahini - from sesame seeds - are all excellent sources.”

Environmental concerns are a major player in influencing modern nutritional choices, and livestock sustainability consultant Dr Jude Capper will speak on the topic at today’s Semex conference.

“The UK dairy industry has made amazing progress in reducing environmental impacts – for example, a nine per cent decrease in the carbon footprint per litre of milk from 2011-2013 – and produces safe, highly-nutritious milk that’s affordable to the consumer,” she said.

Capper says that despite declining figures there’s hope for the industry’s future – claiming converts can be brought back through effective education.

“The social sustainability side has been neglected – we need to communicate better the ecological advantages of dairy production, the positive nutritional benefits of milk and dairy product consumption and the dedication farmers show to keep their cows happy and healthy.”

Despite her title as the UK Dairy Industry’s Woman of the Year 2017, Capper was, surprisingly, once a vegan herself.

“I stopped being vegan and went back to eating milk, eggs and meat once I began talking to farmers and started my degree in animal science – a better understanding of what farmers do and how well they treat their animals showed me that much of the information that I had believed was incorrect.

“Despite the food scares, ‘X will kill you! Y cures cancer!’ there are no perfect or terrible foods – if we have a balanced, healthy diet, we can eat almost anything in moderation.”

Scottish dairy industry by numbers

According to Scottish Government figures there are only 918 dairy herds today, as opposed to 5735 in 1903, when records began. The largest quantity of Scottish dairy cows are farmed in Dumfries and Galloway, with over 40 per cent of the nation’s dairy cattle located there.

The farmer’s cut of milk prices is also in decline, with dairy giant Mueller slashing their cut by 1.5p per litre and others following suit.

Scottish supermarket customers can expect to pay 50p for a pint of milk (or a £1 per litre) throughout January, up from around 44p at the end of 2017 according to the Office of National Statistics. Meanwhile, plant-based milk companies like Alpro charge between £1.50 and £2.00 per litre – although some supermarkets have launched their own versions for less than a pound.