Opportunities and constraints surrounding transformational change in dairy production 

Dr Nathan Clay, Dr Jamie Lorimer, Dr Tara Garnett

milking 1805390 960

The dairy sector represents an important livelihood across the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU), supporting hundreds of thousands of families. However, dairy production practices can negatively impact the environment, animal welfare, and human health. Moreover, dairy farming has rapidly intensified in the UK and EU over the past twenty years. Trends toward larger farms concentrated in fewer hands have sped up as dairy producers struggle to compete in the global marketplace for dairy products. Alongside this impulse to enhance the economic efficiency of dairy operations is increasing pressure to reduce negative externalities of intensified dairy systems on the environment, animal welfare, and human health.

This research seeks to chart dairy system transitions in the UK and EU to detect opportunities and constraints surrounding transformational change and to visualize alternative trajectories of rural development. One popular prospective trajectory is towards multifunctional agricultural landscapes; another is sustainable intensification; a third involves conversion to plant-based milk-alternatives. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) identifies multifunctional agriculture and sustainable intensification as key production-side components of sustainable rural development. Multifunctional agricultural landscape refers to value generated through production of commodity foods as well as environmental services (conserving biodiversity, maintaining waterway health) and maintenance of social-cultural features (including small-farmer livelihoods and family farming). Sustainable intensification refers to increasing yields while reducing the negative environmental externalities associated with conventional farming practices. Following the 2013 CAP ‘greening’ reforms, both sustainable intensification and multifunctionality are incentivized via direct payments and other national-level programs throughout Europe. However, it is unclear as to how these ‘greening’ concepts have translated down to national projects and to local levels, how they have been adopted on farms, and how these changes impact farm management decisions in various social and environmental contexts.

This project examines the impacts of these greening policies and programmes with regards to broader aims of sustainable rural development. It maps political economic contexts within which producers make decisions about land management and considers the cultural ecological components underpinning land management decisions and how these fit within farmers’ life histories and trajectories. As an entry point, the project focuses on greening schemes that aim to promote sustainability in dairy farming operations, especially those that promote multifunctional landscapes and sustainable intensification. It will assess the design and uptake of sustainability programmes in dairy farming in the UK, France, Ireland, and Sweden, considering how national political economic and ecological contexts shape opportunities and constraints for sustainable and socially equitable dairy system transitions at the farm level.