The dairy industry and natural capital

26th January 2016

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Martin Roberts, director for Natural Capital at CISL, outlines a project to find solutions to the impact of the dairy industry on natural capital.

Ninety-three per cent of Britons regularly consume fresh milk – and over 98% regularly consume dairy products. Dairy provides an important source of nutrients yet most of us take our fresh milk and dairy products for granted, rarely considering how they are produced, whether current practices are sustainable and how dairy production impacts the natural environment.

Nature is at the heart of dairy farming as fertile soils, clean water and diverse plant food sources are fundamental to responsible, efficient and viable dairy production. However, some current dairy farming techniques have been linked to the compaction and erosion of soils, pollution of waterways and reduction of biodiversity, thereby depleting the very natural capital upon which the industry depends.

The UK dairy industry recognises that sustainable dairy production that protects natural capital is vital to its future.

With this in mind, a group of leading companies along the dairy value chain joined the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) to help move the agenda beyond a number of important industry commitments. Anglian Water, Glanbia, Nestlé, Lactalis McLelland, Volac and Yara worked with a team in Cambridge through a Dairy Action Research Collaboratory to identify a number of practical interventions.

If adopted at scale, these measures, presented in the report Commercial gains from addressing natural capital challenges in the dairy sector, would improve the environment, meet social expectations for the landscape and rural communities and produce safe and nutritious food.

Farmers often instinctively understand the importance of natural capital resources to their business, nevertheless a recent assessment across all land types showed that a third of vital services delivered by natural capital in the UK are in decline. The companies believed that by mobilising support for a handful of evidence-based management interventions that enhance natural capital, they could protect the long-term security of their supply chains, sustain commercial growth and create additional social benefits.

Practical measures ranged from complex interventions to simple low-technology solutions. For example, mechanical aeration of pastures was identified as a measure that can promote grass root growth and faster incorporation of surface-applied nutrients, whilst also increasing rainwater infiltration to reduce water logging damage of soils. Meanwhile, a relative low-cost method such as the construction of fencing alongside waterways to reduce access by cattle was shown to reduce faecal pollution in rivers and protects riverbanks to decrease sediment loads.

By collating a range of the best available research and presenting these to influential businesses, investors and policy makers, we aim to mobilise the much-needed investment and leadership to rejuvenate the dairy industry and take these important examples of best practice to scale.

These examples build upon the CISL’s Doing Business with Nature report, to demonstrate that the benefits of investing in natural capital management go well beyond enhancing a company’s green credentials and can contribute to decreased costs, reduced risks and increased revenue generation.

We were excited to launch the work at the House of Lords on 25 January, at an event that brought together farmers, businesses in the dairy value chain and policymakers to inform two visions currently being created by the UK government.

One is its 25-year plan for food and farming and the other its 25-year environment plan. By demonstrating how industry can prioritise practical measures that link long-term commercial benefits with protecting the nation’s natural assets, we hope the government will consider how it can better integrate these interdependent 25-year plans.

The challenge for companies across the dairy value chain is to put our collective efforts behind a handful of evidence-based on-farm practices that will lower costs, increase productivity and protect the natural assets upon which dairy depends. This is the only way that we can guarantee a commercially viable dairy industry for the future.

Blog co-written by Andy Richardson, head of corporate affairs at Volac


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