Wageningen University & Research: Making dairy farming more sustainable: challenges and opportunities

Sustainability is crucial to all aspects of our future, and the dairy sector is no exception. The Sustainable Dairy Chain initiative brings together dairy companies and dairy farmers in pursuit of a future-proof and responsible dairy sector. As part of a Public-Private Partnership, the initiative has joined forces with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality to commission research into how dairy farmers might be stimulated to start improving the sustainability of their business operations. The research includes identifying the obstacles to that process.

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is therefore conducting research into the question: what can stimulate dairy farmers to improve the sustainability of their operations, and what challenges do they face? WUR’s report on ‘Making dairy farming more sustainable: challenges and opportunities’ draws on three case studies (from both inside and outside the agriculture sector) to analyse those factors that act as an incentive to improving sustainability, and those that hinder the process. The case studies cover:

Timber construction. This case study is about the use of timber as a sustainable alternative to other construction materials such as steel and concrete.
Vruchtbare Kringloop Achterhoek and Liemers (VKA). VKA is an association of dairy farmers in the Achterhoek region. Its aim is to support members in improving the sustainability of their farming businesses.
Stichting Veldleeuwerik (VL). This was an alliance between arable farmers and processors which aimed to encourage sustainable arable farming and production processes.
The analysis was carried out using the Technological Innovation System (TIS) developed by Hekkert et al. (2007) which identifies problems that can act as obstacles to successful innovation. The system also reveals potential solutions to those problems for government agencies and other stakeholders.

What did the research reveal?
A bottom-up approach can encourage farmers to introduce measures that will help make dairy farming more sustainable. The stakeholders in this process of improving sustainability – such as farmers and supply chain partners – must be active participants in it. Their participation is mutually beneficial. It’s crucial to ensure a well-organised governance structure, taking into account the interests of both the farmers and the supply chain partners.
It’s also essential to monitor and evaluate the impacts of measures designed to improve the sustainability of operational management.
Farmers need certain financial and legal freedoms to be able to experiment. The agricultural sectors still have many unanswered questions about sustainability. They aren’t sure which approaches work, and which do not.
It will be important to learn from each other. Study groups and business networks can help farmers support each other and equip them with the tools they need to make their businesses more sustainable.
Rewarding farmers for their efforts to become more sustainable has an incentivising impact.