British cheese: A sustainable future

24 May 2022, 15:55 PM
  • When we think about cheese, we might conjure images of crumbly slices served on crisp crackers with a glass of perfectly paired port, not its sustainability credentials. But is all this about to change?
British cheese: A sustainable future

When it comes to food, sustainability is very much at the forefront of consumer choices. In fact, the latest Trust Report from EIT Food revealed that 75% of Brits are motivated to live a sustainable life, with 54% currently making a concerted effort to eat sustainably.

Sustainability isn’t new to cheesemaking, especially in the UK where farm-to-fork production is championed. However, with a national hunger for convenience and cheaper options, some could argue that the traditional methods of dairy farming and its sustainability credentials have been put on the backburner.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust explained: “Sustainability of farming practice and the art and science of artisan cheesemaking should always have been partners, but unfortunately, this hasn’t always been the case. This is largely because the economics of sustainable farming have been challenging, until now, when the challenges of climate and food system insecurity highlighted by Ukraine have resulted in more and more farmers becoming interested in producing milk in a more sustainable way.”

With sustainability increasing in popularity again, providing sustainable cheese options for conscious consumers is more important than ever before.

Sustainability from farm to cheese counter
Ensuring that the cheese in your counter is sustainable is not an easy feat, and there are stages across the ensure supply chain where unsustainable practices can filter in. Andrea Araujo, communications officer at Bayley & Sage described their process for cheese buying: “By using producers and products we know, and have often visited, it is easier to identify good sustainability practices.

Building relationships with cheese producers and merchants means that we are able to better understand their values; we like to work with people that share similar values as we do, such as a recognition of the importance of looking after our environment.”

“We tend to favour cheese made by small artisan producers, generally those that work with their own herd or local milk. This limits some transportation and helps to ensure the cheese is produced within a localised environment. Our producers tend not to use milk that they have brought in, or that has been transported long distances. As a rule, the producers are using milk that is immediately and locally available to them before being made into cheese.”

It’s not just environmental sustainability that small artisan producers offer. Patrick explains, “They also deliver lots of cultural and social benefits, including employment, the contribution they make to the rural community in which they live and better outcomes from their farming systems, including reduced emissions, less pollution, better welfare and food production more in harmony with nature, not all of which benefits for which they are rewarded, hence the extra price. It is important that consumers realise all these benefits because once they do, more and more people will be prepared to pay extra for cheese with a better backstory.”

Greener packaging?
With extended producer responsibility legislation due to come into effect from 2024, all food producers including cheesemakers are having to reevaluate their packaging and look for more sustainable options. Andrea explains: “This legislation, as I understand it, requires the producer of the product to be responsible for the packaging used after the product has been purchased and consumed. The logistics of this will be incredibly difficult to manage but if it can be, then this will certainly incentivise the producer to reduce, re-use or eliminate packaging completely.

“There is a risk that the cost of this in the short term at least will result in an increase in the cost of the product, which will be felt by everyone in the food chain – including the consumer. Ultimately, this will make everyone more aware and responsible for the need to reduce or remove packaging. In theory, zero-waste cheese could be possible in the future - when and how is hard to determine.”

One choice retailers can make to avoid unsustainable packaging is to buy in whole cheeses rather than pre-packed options. As Andrea explains, “The majority of the cheese we sell is not pre-packaged, preferring to cut and wrap in-store, reducing the use of heavy-duty plastic packaging, much of which is non-recyclable, as you often find in cheese aisles up and down the country.”

Wilma Finlay from The Ethical Dairy added: “It has forced us to research the packaging market and find a truly sustainable packaging that is suitable for cheese, which has not been easy.  Getting behind the claims takes a bit of doing.  Is compostable really better than re-cyclable? Most customers are demanding zero plastic, but sometimes compostable material can be more environmentally damaging than a recyclable one.  We are still trialling the properties of different types of packaging with regard to shelf life.”

Stephen Fleming, owner of George and Joseph is struggling with sustainable options for fresh cheeses. “A big challenge for us is the amount of clingfilm we use to protect cheeses on display in our counter.  There’s not much out there at the moment in terms of environmentally friendly alternatives but we’re watching closely for when that changes. Hopefully, the legislation will accelerate developments in this area.”

Selling sustainability
When it comes to selling sustainability to your customers, Andrea stresses the importance of having knowledge about your brands. “Know their producers, understand the impact of how their cheese is produced, and the effect this has on the environment. Look to source locally where possible. Be open to hearing external opinions, giving them weight and acting on good process or policy changes. Be willing to adapt, change and develop the way the industry produces, sells and consumes cheese and make sure that communication takes place in all directions, from the producer, the retailer and the consumer.”

Stephen mirrored these thoughts, “We believe the best approach is to build close relationships with those at all stages in the chain from the producer, through distributors and the companies we deal with to process waste. We then get to communicate these messages to our customers so they are better informed too.”

As Patrick puts it, “Quite simply, [independent retailers] can be loyal to the growing number of small-scale family cheese producers who are switching to sustainable and regenerative methods and do everything they can to communicate these benefits to their customers. It is important to visit the farms where the cheeses are made because then they will be able to tell the customers from firsthand experience of visiting the suppliers.

“A lot can be achieved through social media and making sure that the customers of retailers who sell sustainable, organic and artisan cheeses call given the Instagram addresses of the makers. At Holden Farm Dairy we do a lot of communication through Instagram and it is in effect educating our customers.”

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