Nuffield Scholar - 2017 - TOM LEVITT

Tom Levitt

I grew up in Cornwall, in a small hamlet outside of Saltash. Both my parents were academics, working on social issues. Both of their parents came from farming backgrounds. One side dairy farmers in Cheshire, the other pig farmers in Cambridgeshire. During my teenage years my family moved to Lancashire, where I stayed until leaving for University in York, for a BA in history and politics and then an MA in journalism at the university of Central Lancashire. I currently live in London, but am moving to Cheshire early next year.

My first job in journalism was at Farmers Guardian. A stroke of great fortune. I quickly gained a passion for both the subject matter and the industry and people within it. My journalism career since has seen me write about food and farming issues for a large number of media outlets, including the Independent and CNN. My job now is as an editor and journalist at the Guardian. My stories in the recent past have included front page pieces on the tragic issue of sheep farmers poisoned by using OPs and Tesco´s use of fictional farm brands.

As well as my work for the Guardian, I have written about the farming for Country Life, CNN, Farmers Guardian, the Independent and Vice. I've also been a guest on the BBC World Service and BBC radio talking about dairy and farming issues. Aside from journalism, I regularly chair Guardian and public debates on a range of issues and am on the advisory board for Foodsource, an initiative run by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

Before deciding to apply for a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, I completed an MSc in Food Policy (with distinction) in 2015 at City University. Doing that MSc alongside my day-job at the Guardian has prepared me for doing the same again with my Nuffield - although I now also have a one-year old son to juggle too. Despite the busy year ahead, I am both proud and thankful to the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust for giving me this opportunity and to The Trehane Trust for sponsoring me. I hope to repay that faith over the next 18 months and beyond.

Put a label on it: why the future of cow’s milk is a branded one

Study Overview

Despite cow’s milk being consumed by 87% of the population in the UK there are concerns that it is vulnerable to falling out of fashion with a younger generation. It’s the same story in the US where generic marketing tactics like the long-running ‘Got Milk?’ campaign has failed to stop per capita consumption of cow’s milk in the US falling by one-third since the 1970s. In contrast, sales of plant-based ‘milks’ in the US were worth an estimated $2 billion in 2017,accounting for around 10% of the total milk market. Several major dairy companies have already started producing plant-based ‘milks’ or bought into non-cow’s ‘milk’ companies.

The purpose of this study was to understand what constitutes a viable future for the cow’s milk –as opposed to the wider dairy -category. Travelling around major milk consumer markets in North America and Europe and interviewing key stakeholders and consumer experts reveals a sector that has lost its monopoly, with eating habits, lifestyles, innovation and supermarket shelves no longer wedded to milk. Consumers have also long lost their connection to dairy farming and struggle to comprehend the reality of the industry today with bucolic childhood images.

The biggest failure with the marketing of milk is how undervalued liquid milk is by the marketplace. Supermarkets have long used milk as a low margin product or even loss leader and that shows no signs of changing, with Walmart openly talking of being able to cut milk production costs further in the US. This focus on price and standardisation has created a race to the bottom which in turn is holding back innovation.

The key recommendation of this report is the importance of investing in the emerging branded market, which accounts for less than 20% of all UK milk sales but is driving growth. The new barista milks, kefir drinks and other drinkable milk products providing a specific taste, health or nutritional benefit are clearly capturing the changing eating habits, interests and life styles of consumers. Some are not even marketing themselves as a milk product. If cow’s milk can define its points of difference, the liquid milk category still has a future to be more than an undervalued commodity, even if the word itself becomes redundant.

Although some producers have got involved in direct selling, building a successful brand is a significant time and financial commitment. Alternatively, some are collaborating with businesses and entrepreneurs in the supply chain to deliver branded milk products. Dairy producers may prefer to rely on retailers, but retailers have done little, or been unable, to significantly improve the value of milk. And, as they have shown with their heavy promotion of ‘milk’ alternatives, their loyalty is to consumers, not cow’s milk producers. In the long term, dairy producers should be open to seeking partners who have other supply chain skills, expertise and contacts.

Scholar Video