The Resilient Dairy Landscapes project: nature-based solutions to the challenges posed by Brexit

N8 AgriFood researchers from the Universities of Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool are collaborating to make the UK dairy industry more sustainable and resilient. The industry faces unprecedented uncertainty as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. Although the dairy industry is less dependent on subsidies than many other types of farming , the sector has suffered from low and sometimes negative profit margins over the last 20 years and is having to adapt to water shortages and new disease risks from climate change. The Resilient Dairy Landscapes project is exploring how the dairy industry can increase animal welfare and reduce impacts on the environment while retaining a stable supply of reasonably priced dairy products after Brexit.

It is a £1.5M four-year project funded by the Global Food Security’s ‘Resilience of the UK Food System Programme’ with support from BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and Scottish Government. The researchers will be working with Nestle, 3Keel, Business in the Community, the Rivers Trusts, Innovation for Agriculture, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Catchment Sensitive Farming, FirstMilk and other stakeholders in the dairy industry and Government. The research is part of a £4.9 million investment by the UK Research Councils, which former Science Minister, Jo Johnson, described as “helping ensure the future security of the UK food sector, while reinforcing our position as a world leader in science and innovation.”

The project is part of a wider move towards “nature-based solutions” that deliver benefits for business and society by protecting services provided by nature, such as soil health and water quality. According to Mark Reed, N8 AgriFood Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University, who is leading the project, “The idea of natural capital now is mainstream. Companies appreciate that there are direct benefits for business that look after the environment, but the magnitude of the win-win for business is not always clear. To move investment in natural capital out of the domain of Corporate Social Responsibility into core business, we need evidence of both the win-wins and trade-offs across the dairy production system. Climate change is an important component of many businesses risk registers, and many of these companies are looking at investing in nature to secure their supply chains and become more resilient to environmental risk.

The project is studying a new initiative developed by Nestlé and its suppliers with Business in the Community and 3Keel, called Landscape Enterprise Networks. The approach, says Prof Reed, “looks at all the natural capital benefits across the landscape and matches them to buyers who might benefit, then pools resources from across those buyers”. As part of this initiative, Nestle is offering their farmers a price premium per litre for trying out a range of natural capital interventions. Nestlé’s farmers produce 1% of the UK’s total milk output (110m litres), which it uses in products like KitKat, Yorkie and Nescafé pre-packaged drinks.

Andy Griffiths, head of environmental sustainability for Nestlé UK and Ireland, explains: “You start to identify where natural assets are and when you understand those, you understand what functions they deliver and then the risks. Once you start to get into assets and functions you’re going beyond dairy, and then you can identify other interested parties or beneficiaries – like water companies.” Nestle started by funding interventions such as hedge planting and fencing restored watercourses. In collaboration with the researchers, Nestlé’s farmers jointly develop a wider range of evidence-based interventions to improve their soil, water and animal welfare.”

So far however, there has been limited opportunity to research how the approach is working. Andy Griffiths said, “We believe it’s having an impact but it’s difficult at this stage to explicitly report against, because we need more effective measurement.” The Resilient Dairy Landscapes project will therefore look at multi-functional benefits of interventions across animal health, habitat, water, soil quality and Greenhouse Gas emissions, to see what works at scale. “Our project asks, do these things work, and what are the benefits and trade-offs?” says Prof Reed. “What is the magnitude of the effects and are they worth a price premium?”

“The project signifies a change in the tone of debate around natural capital, which has remained stuck for some time as a form of CSR,” says Prof Reed. “Only when we fully understand its role in increasing resilience against future shocks will it become possible to make the business case for investment in natural capital.”

In the first year of the project, the team are conducting systematic reviews of published literature, which they are feeding into policy and using to construct systems models. They are combining this scientific knowledge with expertise from stakeholders in “social innovation labs” that are designed to come up with new evidence-based on-farm interventions that are attractive to farmers and can deliver win-wins for farming, big business and the environment. At the same time, the team are working with farmers to set up monitoring systems, including the use of an autonomous robot similar to a Mars Rover, satellite data and measurements of soil, water and animal health data. Working with Nestle and Business in the Community, the findings from the research will be applied to the development of similar schemes that connect businesses with farmers in arable systems, and shared internationally through Nestle’s international supplier network.

Anthonia James, Operations Director of the N8 AgriFood programme is a member of the advisory panel for the project: “This exciting project reflects the spirit of the N8 AgriFood programme, a collaboration which aims to influence environmental policy and practice change. Through its interdisciplinary approach the programme has a specific emphasis on generating new knowledge and addressing key agrifood issues through innovation and collaboration with industry. This project is an excellent example of bringing all those elements together and I’m delighted to be involved in the project as a member of their advisory panel”.