Slump in milk demand blamed on children being weaned off dairy products in Northern Ireland
Young people in Northern Ireland are increasingly shunning milk and other dairy products, prompting fears the industry is "sleepwalking into a crisis".
David Dobbin, the former boss of Dale Farm, has warned that dairy farmers here are facing a big drop in demand because the younger generation is drinking less milk than their parents and grandparents.
He also told delegates at a conference in Belfast's Waterfront Hall that he blamed the plunge on celebrities advocating a vegan diet and on health professionals treating dairy products "as the enemy".
In order to prevent a crisis - which is being exacerbated by parents who have been encouraging their children to switch to soya milk and other plant-based alternatives - he said a "three-a-day" campaign is going to be launched to promote the nutritional benefits of dairy products.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Dobbin, Northern Ireland Dairy Council chair, said dairy farms were facing a "demographic time bomb" if they didn't act now to address the slump in demand for their products.
"The baby boomers - the people born in the 1950s and 1960s - grew up consuming a lot of dairy, but that's not the case with today's children and teens," he said.
"Milk consumption and dairy consumption have slipped - more so milk than dairy because people are eating more yoghurt and cheese than a generation ago and drinking less milk.
"It's a slow demographic time bomb. If we don't address the problem now, then we are facing a fall-off in demand for dairy and we will lose the next generation of consumers."
Mr Dobbin, who is also chairman of Dairy UK, said that people wrongly assume that dairy is bad for them because of its fat content, without considering the other nutritional benefits it offers.
"The problem we face is that we have some health professionals who see dairy as the enemy," he said.
"We have to fight that. If we can win the hearts and minds of consumers, then it will create life-long habits for dairy consumption."
Mr Dobbin, a former chief executive of United Dairy Farmers, added: "It's not a crisis yet, but if we as an industry don't wake up and do something to promote our product, that's where we're heading."
There are currently more than 2,500 dairy farms in Northern Ireland compared to more than 7,000 in 2000, according to Mr Dobbin, with recent closures being blamed on a surplus of milk that caused prices to plummet .
Dairy UK has expressed fears that the problem of oversupply will get much worse, unless young people can be convinced of the importance of consuming dairy.
The new campaign to promote dairy consumption is being launched in the near future by the Global Dairy Platform, which works to promote the industry around the world.