Almond, coconut, oat, soy, pea, and hemp milk… in an age particularly reliant on Starbucks morning coffee and cycling health trends, the alternative dairy industry is taking the world by storm

Led by younger generations who are more health-conscious, environmentally aware, and concerned about animal welfare than their predecessors, the movement of seeking plant-based substitutes for traditional dairy products first gained notable traction in 2015 and has only grown since.

For example, in 2022, 48% of UK consumers aged 16-75 use a plant-based milk in their diets; in Germany, 20% of consumers regularly consume dairy substitutes. With the production of cow’s milk requiring significant water, land, and energy, the traditional dairy industry’s supply chain favors plant-based alternatives, which require fewer resources to produce and promote sustainability. These figures demonstrate a clear shift in consumer preferences, as well a growing market for plant-based alternatives.

This shift has had a profound impact on the traditional dairy industry worldwide, with established dairy companies like Switzerland-based Nestle, France-based Danone, and New Zealand co-operative Fonterra experiencing a decrease in market share as consumers turn to such alternatives. According to a report by the Good Food Institute, sales of plant-based dairy products in the United States increased by 27% in 2020 and 6.2% in 2021, bringing the total plant-based market value to nearly 20 billion.

A push towards alternative dairy has also been felt in emerging economies such as India, where dairy consumption has traditionally been low. In fact, India's dairy alternative market stood at $20.9 million in 2018 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20.7% to reach $68.9 million by 2024. In South America- where almost 70% of the population is lactose intolerant and soy is widely available-, the plant-based market is expected to expand 10.27%. Brazil and Argentina make up almost 50% of the Latin American plant-based market, with Colombia emerging as a sizable contributor.  

To stay competitive, Big Dairy brands are investing in plant-based products or acquiring alternative dairy startups. In 2017, Danone acquired WhiteWave Foods, a leading plant-based food and beverage company, for a staggering $12.5 billion; In 2019, China’s In 2019, largest dairy company, Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, invested in plant-based New Zealand company Westland Milk. Meanwhile, alternative dairy brands such as Oatly and Califia Farms are continuing to experience rapid growth in market share. 

On the other hand, economies gravitating towards plant-based alternatives can create challenges for countries that rely heavily on dairy exports. In 2020, for instance, New Zealand’s exports of milk and cream decreased by 6.5%, with alternative dairy products being cited as one of the reasons for the reduction. Similarly, July of 2022 saw Australia’s exports of dairy products decrease by 3.4%.

Beyond just milk, the market for alternative cheese, yogurt, and ice cream is also quickly expanding. Plant-based yogurt is projected to grow 10% between 2020 and 2030, reaching $50 billion market value in the latter. Overall, the global dairy alternative market- valued at $26.01 billion in 2022- is expected to rise 12.6% from 2023 to 2030. 

As an increasing amount of plant-based dairy options becomes readily available and quality in the dairy alternative markets grow, it’s likely more consumers will shift their habits in this way, as well. However, with the global traditional dairy market valuing $720 billion in 2019, it seems that “regular” milk is here to stay.

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