The current oat milk versus real milk wrangle is faintly reminiscent of the margarine versus butter debate that was dividing arable and dairy farmers 40 years ago, the key difference being that then the fracture points were about health, whereas today it’s about global warming.

Back in the 1980s, the new wonder crop for UK arable farmers was oilseed rape. The challenge was to get consumers to eat the stuff. Margarine was an obvious outlet.

The trouble was, to get it flying off the shelves, it needed to displace butter. The sales pitch was that it was healthier than butter, not to mention being more spreadable.

About the author

Guy Smith

Farmers Weekly Opinion writer

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast, which is officially recognised as the driest farm in the UK.  He has held the position of deputy president at the NFU and served on the boards of FACE, HGCA and Landskills New Entrants Committee.

See also: Oatly sues Glebe Farm Foods over PureOaty brand

As for the taste, that was rather more subjective, with dairies firmly of the view you could easily believe it wasn’t butter.

Despite the “corn versus horn” fractiousness, it has turned out that sales of dairy products haven’t unduly suffered in the face of greater consumption of vegetable oil.

With a growing, wealthier world population to feed, there is room for growth in both markets, not forgetting that the average human is getting fatter.

Today it seems dairy and arable are in danger of being dragged into another spat. This time it’s over the health of the planet rather than the health of those who live on it that’s up for debate.

Although the science isn’t settled, making it very prone to bias confirmation, there are well-funded adverts claiming oat milk has a significantly lower carbon footprint than what comes out of the udders of a cow.

To really rub salt into the dairy wound, some of these adverts go so far as to suggest those who drink milk are in some way behaving unethically or irresponsibly. Inevitably, the vegan agenda gets dragged in to hype up an already overheated attack on dairy farmers.

In response, some on the dairy side have questioned the carbon footprint of growing oats.

Mercifully, there isn’t a cereal welfare movement out there protesting about alleged cruelty to oats, but one fears it’s only a matter of time…

So, how should farmers react in this cauldron of negative advertising?

Is it better to keep out of it or will commercial drivers inevitably drag us into the unedifying habit of slagging off the other farmer’s product rather than concentrating on the merits of our own?

The danger of both sides deciding it is easier to take chunks out of each other rather than to promote the positives is that consumers might decide to avoid both milk and milk substitutes altogether, by taking their tea and coffee black.

The other conundrum is the temptation to try to grow the size of the market for everyone by encouraging consumers to consume more.

Maybe in these Olympian times farmers should be getting behind campaigns to encourage people to exercise more.

If everyone biked to work or school, they could justify an extra pint of cow’s milk for breakfast, and if they biked home again, they could have a pint of oat milk for tea.