MILK and dairy products hold huge potential to improve nutrition and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of poor people across the world, according to a new U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication released Nov. 26.
The book, Milk & Dairy Products in Human Nutrition, says governments should be investing more in programs that make milk and dairy products available to poor families and that help them produce milk at home.
"As part of a balanced diet, milk and dairy products can be an important source of dietary energy, protein and fat," said FAO senior nutrition officer Ellen Muehlhoff, who co-edited the publication. "They are also rich in micronutrients critical for fighting malnutrition in developing countries where the diets of poor people are often starch- or cereal-based and lack diversity."
A combination of food is necessary for a healthy diet, and milk and dairy products are not the only sources of essential nutrients, Muehlhoff added.
However, while animal milk is not recommended for infants under 12 months, FAO said it is an efficient vehicle for delivering vital nutrients and improving growth for young children, for whom nutrition is critical in the first 1,000 days of life, she said.
Despite the benefits they could be providing, milk and dairy products are still too expensive for the poorest families to buy, the book warns.
Dairy consumption in developing countries is expected to increase 25% by 2025 as a result of population growth and rising incomes, but milk and dairy products will likely still be out of reach for the most vulnerable households, FAO said.
Governments need to address the issue by making nutrition a specific objective in dairy sector development and by investing in programs that help poor families keep small dairy livestock like goats at home, according to the publication.
"Small-scale dairy farming is especially beneficial to poor households as it provides food and nutrients but also a regular income," FAO livestock industry officer Anthony Bennett, co-editor of the new publication, said. "Whereas crop agriculture means getting paid once or maybe twice a year, dairy is produced and sold daily, so smallholders have cash in hand for immediate family needs such as food, household goods, clothing and schooling — and that changes lives."
Currently, about 150 million households — some 750 million people — are engaged in milk production around the world, the majority of whom are in developing countries, FAO said.
Although the term "milk" has become almost synonymous with cow's milk, milk from many other species is consumed in different parts of the world.
The FAO book covers the milk composition of other major dairy species such as buffalo, goat and sheep and species that are currently underutilized in dairy production such as reindeer, moose, llama, alpaca, donkey, yak, camel and mithun, FAO said.
"There is huge scope for developing other dairy species, particularly goats, which are easier to keep than cattle and significantly increase the accessibility of dairying to poor rural families," Bennett said.
In South America, for example, llamas and alpacas have historically not been bred for dairy purposes but could provide a valuable nutritional and economic resource for the people living in the region's mountainous areas, the book suggests.
Milk from some of the other underutilized dairy species also has particular nutritional benefits. For instance, the protein profiles of mare and donkey milk may make them more suitable for the 2-6% of the population allergic to cow's milk.
FAO pointed out that the book also addresses environmental and health concerns that have arisen in recent years regarding milk and dairy consumption and production.