Two years ago, that would have been a good question,” says Tim Mead, founder and CEO of Yeo Valley, the UK’s largest organic dairy brand. I’m in Somerset, at Yeo Valley HQ, and I’ve just asked him if there’s a future for dairy in this country. Behind him, the valley of Yeo rolls out into woodland, villages and, yes, cowdotted fields. He seems relaxed – is relaxed, despite the existential threats that have faced his industry in recent years. We’ve had the pandemic, deepening concerns about the environmental impact of cows, the rise of veganism and alternative milks, and energy and cost-of-living crises, which have affected both consumers and farmers. Yet Mead, whose family have farmed in Somerset since 1400, is optimistic about the future. “We have a really simple position that it is a natural, healthy food that nourishes people and nurtures the planet, and all we want to do is make it more accessible to more people,” he says matter-of-factly. Two years ago, the pandemic was still a very present threat, and alternative proteins were on the front foot. Now, “I feel we’re in the right place at the right time.”

A cow at the Yeo Valley farm

Alternative milks appear to be struggling. Shares in Oatly, once the UK’s leading alternative milk brand, are plummeting, and last month it reported a record net loss. Earlier this year, figures suggested demand for plant-based milks in general slowed and actually went into decline. The underlying factors behind this are complicated – the market is crowded, demand was overestimated, living costs have gone up and these highly processed foods are expensive – but it is the latter point that gives Mead and his fellow dairy farmers reason for optimism. “The movement toward eating more plant-based food was hijacked by people looking to sell disguised ultra-processed food, rather than resulting in people eating more fruit and vegetables,” he says. At the same time, more research has been done into the positive role ruminants can play in boosting biodiversity and capturing carbon. As more and more people are waking up to the perils of ultra-processed food, which comes at a cost to their health as well as their wallets, their soy, oat and almond-based rivals are steadily falling from grace.

“They’re looking for the alternative to the alternative foods – and that is unprocessed,” says dairy farmer Stephen Hook, of his growing cohort of 20 to 35-year-old customers. Once the prime targets for plant-based brands, now the owner of Hook & Son sees “lots of young people on social media sharing and learning about unprocessed food, and the difference they notice when they switch to raw milk. They’re going back to basics,” he explains – and they are increasingly interested in the provenance and production of what they eat and drink.

Young people are noticing the difference when they switch to raw milk

In the world of milk, Hook & Son – which sells dairy products from a unit in Borough Market, as well as online and from its farm – represents an interesting case. Once a conventional farmer of dairy, Hook took the bold decision in 2005 to sell his milk, butter and cream direct to the public, rather than via supermarkets. The decision was born first out of need – the price suppliers were paying farmers for milk had fallen so low, Hook was losing money – but it was bold because Hook chose to sell raw milk, rather than pasteurise it. The farm, Longleys, is 150 years old and has been organic since the year 2000. The cows graze the rich pasture of the Pevensey Levels in the warmer months and have silage (fermented grass) in the winter, supplemented by sunflower, linseed and beans. This low intervention approach, which involves neither grain nor artificial fertilisers and routine antibiotics, is better for both our health and the environment, and selling his milk unpasteurised and direct to his customers struck Hook as the best way to serve them, his farm and his family.

Research into the benefits of raw milk is ongoing, but early evidence suggests it is rich in beneficial bacteria (killed in the pasteurisation process) which can boost gut health and alleviate allergy-related conditions. It’s possible that those who are lactose-intolerant might be able to process milk when it’s not pasteurised, because the enzymes that facilitate milk digestion are denatured in the process of pasteurisation. By keeping his milk “as nature intended”, with all the health benefits that entails, Hook realised he could offer a health food, not just a commodity for tea and coffee.

Hook & Son’s flagship shop in Borough Market

Is this sustainable at scale? It’s true that producing clean, raw milk now is more viable than it has been in decades. Back in the 1980s, when pasteurisation was introduced as standard, many herds were infected with tuberculosis and brucellosis, which could be passed onto humans. What’s more, the milking process itself could be unhygienic, meaning environmental pathogens like salmonella and E. coli were also risks. Now “hygiene on dairy farms is so much better. Brucellosis has been eradicated, and herds selling raw milk in the UK are regularly sampled for tuberculosis. The industry has done a lot to get on top of pathogens, and the Food Standards Agency has brought raw milk in line with other foods, so there is a management system in place which validates producers and analyses risks, protecting the consumer and producers.” As a result, Hook continues, the number of farms selling raw milk in the UK has gone up to around 300 since 2018.

Yet scale is a different matter. Though dairy consumption has declined slightly in the last few years, 98% of households still bought milk in the last year, according to data from Kantar. The UK has a higher-than-average liquid milk consumption globally, thanks to our penchant for milky coffee and tea. There are around 12,000 active dairy farmers producing almost 15 billion litres of milk each year. That’s a lot of milk, to feed people of vastly varying budgets. There is a lot to be said for Hook & Son’s approach. “We’ve seen the fragility of a global food system. It’s fine when it works, but when there’s a pandemic or a tanker stuck in the Suez Canal, it crashes,” says Hook. Taking himself out of that system benefits his own farm – because he has few input costs and can set his own price – as well as his local community, as he offers well-paid rural jobs. But is there a middle ground: one which works within the existing – if flawed – food system to render it more environmentally sustainable and affordable at scale? I find the answer back in the misty Yeo Valley and, somewhat less romantically, in the aisles of Waitrose. Neither are clear cut; few things in health and sustainability are, when it comes to food, but in both I find cause for hope.

Like Hook, Mead takes a no-nonsense approach to food production, which is to say his methods are based on very limited technological intervention. Yeo Valley pasteurises its milk – he is sceptical that raw milk can be safe at scale – but it is otherwise unprocessed, and its yoghurts are cultured naturally. The same applies to their farms, which are managed so as to increase the amount of carbon in the soil via diverse pasture and rotational grazing. “There is no silver bullet,” he says of environmentally sustainable farming, “no technological quick fix. If you look at the big emitters of climate change gases, it’s transport, energy and food production. Energy generation, you’re looking at solar and wind. Transport you’re looking at hydrogen cars. But agriculture wasn’t invented 200 years ago. It’s thousands of years old, and the solution is not technical, it’s biological."

If you want to regenerate soil you have to integrate large herbivores

That sounds idealistic, but Mead is a deeply practical man. “More carbon is stored in soils globally than in the vegetation or the atmosphere combined. If you want to regenerate soil you have to integrate large herbivores – because they are integral to soil fertility.” Explaining the how and why of this is impossible within the scope of this article, though I recommend further research; it’s a fascinating subject. Long story short, the photosynthesis of grasses and herbs draw carbon into the roots, feeding the microbes in the soil who, when they die, end up in the soil as stable carbon. Grazing animals contribute toward the richness of the soil through manure, through trampling the grasses into the ground – “that’s brown carbon; fungus breaks this into the ground” – and through encouraging the regrowth of grasses through grazing.

In 2020, Yeo Valley invested in a £2m soil carbon programme, following a five-year carbon testing pilot which showed that by using regenerative organic methods, the soil carbon stocks on Mead’s family farm is equivalent to 150 years’ worth of its emissions. He drives me around his own farm – one of the 130 supplying Yeo Valley with milk – digging his hand into the long, herb-strewn grasses and parting them in order to show me the rich soil below. “20 years ago herbal leys (the herb and flower-enriched grassland that regenerative farmers now plant in their pastures) were a pretty blunt instrument. Now we know much more about what to plant.” Flowering herbs and grasses support pollinators, legumes add nitrogen to the soil, and the variety of root lengths improve soil structure, with the result of reduced runoff and increased organic matter and soil fertility. “When we sample the soil for carbon, we do it at 50cm, 30cm and 10cm, because we consider it a 3D soil pit,” says Mead. “We want carbon stored all the way.”

Yeo Valley’s product range includes milk, flavoured and unflavoured yoghurt, kefir, ice cream and more, all created with ultra-sustainable milk

Afterwards we visit Yeo Valley’s agroforestry project, where cows roam within the trees. By trampling on young trees, they ensure the forest is sparse enough for grass to grow, enabling them to graze and boosting soil carbon. “The soil carbon in a forest is low because it’s in the trees, but soil carbon is more stable,” says Mead. “There is no risk of it being released into the atmosphere when the tree dies.” Here, the ‘pit’ of carbon Mead describes extends from the deepest tree roots up to the highest branches, and the cows’ diet varies from the grasses to the tree branches and leaves, boosting their nutrient intake. He talks about the big tech companies currently buying woodland in Wales to support carbon capture. “Imagine if they supported agroforestry. They’d get a better carbon outcome, and the country would get healthier food.

If big tech companies supported agroforestry, the country would get healthier food

Thinking like this has been integral to Yeo Valley’s success, which has hinged on working with big corporations and within the existing food system, rather than against it. In this it is similar to Waitrose – itself very much part of the existing food system, and one of the five major supermarkets Yeo Valley supplies. For its own part, Waitrose has committed to net zero carbon by 2035, and the farms that supply its own range of dairy products are integral to that. “We aren’t importing soy from South America, grass forage is grown here, and all our dairy is free range,” says Jake Pickering, Waitrose’s senior agriculture manager. Having worked with the same pool of dairy farmers for 23 years, they have been able to encourage and support their investment in more ethical and regenerative practices; at the moment, the focus is on helping farmers manage their slurry, so they can repurpose it as fertiliser, and increase the biodiversity of their farms through agroforestry schemes and more diverse pastures. The best – that is, the most environmentally sound and to my mind, the most delicious – milk is its organic ‘Duchy’ range, but it is committed to ensuring customers on all budgets can buy milk without compromising their ethics. “We invested £10 million in our prices so as to ensure we remain competitive without walking away from our commitments to farmers,” says Pickering. “The Essentials milk is free-range, and is the best-value milk on the market.”

A young farmer on one of Waitrose’s partner farms

Mead and Pickering are honest about the challenges facing the industry, and the problems with the current system. But they see great hope in the appetite for change demonstrated by both consumers and big corporations. “We are minuscule in the scale of farming and food across the world and even in this country, but what I do know is that contrary to consumer belief, large manufacturers are big adopters of the potential to weaponise the soil in the fight against climate change,” Mead explains, citing Unilever’s commitment to regenerative farming, and the UN sustainability goals that all major retailers are working towards. “The attitude of every retailer we deal with has come on in leaps and bounds,” says Mead – and while of course, there is an element of greenwashing, he believes in democracy rather than revolution.

We’ve always felt that changing the system from within is the only way

“We have always felt that changing the system from within is the only way,” he says, and this means ensuring foods produced in a regenerative system make their way into every shopping basket. “Of the average 40 items that are found in every shopping basket, we need half of those produced in a system that helps people and the planet.” This means a move away from ultra-processed foods – alternative meats and milks included – and toward food produced in a way that restores and retains carbon. Hook would agree on this point, though like me is inherently wary of greenwashing, and has limited faith in major food corporations following through on their commitments to regeneration.

Nevertheless, I believe both his model and that of Yeo Valley and Waitrose can work in tandem. In an ideal world we would all have access to regeneratively farmed, unprocessed raw milk with all the accompanying benefits to our health and that of our soil. Yet the very fact that something close to that ideal can exist and grow within a world that is anything but ideal, gives me hope for Mead’s realism.