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The Challenge

The Challenge

Resilient Dairy Landscapes

Resilient Dairy Landscapes

The UK has the tenth largest dairy sector in the world, producing 14 percent of the EU's milk and representing over two percent of global milk production. The UK has had low prices for milk over a period of 20 years leading to the UK dairy farmers suffering from low and sometimes negative profit margins, worsened by high input costs, competition between retailers, global oversupply and, since 2014, Russian dairy import bans.


Dairy production depends on the natural environment but, if poorly managed, dairy production can erode the natural capital upon which it depends, for example by polluting rivers. Dairy systems use a lot of water, and so are vulnerable to reductions in water availability and quality caused by climate change, and they are also at risk of the introduction of new animal diseases transmitted by ticks or insects. A sustainable dairy industry must improve or maintain water, biodiversity and soil quality, be resilient to new diseases, meet social expectations, offer farmers a livelihood and provide accessible and affordable dairy products to consumers.


To make systems resilient to these future changes, and to make them sustainable and socially responsible, we need to understand the complex links between dairy production, animal health, and the natural ecosystems upon which they depend. 

Our approach

We will investigate a range of innovative, practical measures developed with, and applied by, major players in the dairy industry in collaboration with dairy farmers in the north of England and south of Scotland. These interventions  will be carefully costed and designed to improve animal health and milk production while improving the natural environment, and will include the use of new pricing models being piloted by Nestlé that reward more sustainable production decisions and enable farmers to adapt more effectively to future change, so guaranteeing the long-term supply of dairy products to manufacturers. With the possibility of a post-Brexit reduction or cessation of direct payments to dairy farmers it is critical and timely to improve both

financial and environmental sustainability in the sector.


The project combines cutting edge social, economic, natural and veterinary science to identify and test new approaches in close collaboration with industry partners in the UK. The work will provide evidence to the devolved administrations, Defra and the third sector to inform post-Brexit policy on food, farming and environmental policy, and will support the Government’s role in providing early warning of major, notifiable or new and emerging animal diseases in the dairy sector. We will use computer models and an international stakeholder network to identify lessons for the industry internationally.

The project is organised in four Work Packages (WPs):

  • WP1: Social innovations for dairy system futures (WP leaders: Mark Reed and Lynn Frewer, Newcastle University)

  • WP2: Understanding ecosystem service dynamics (WP leader: Guy Ziv, University of Leeds)

  • WP3: Understanding animal disease dynamics (WP leader: Diana Williams, University of Liverpool)

  • WP4: Upscaling resilience and sustainability (WP leader: Gavin Stewart, Newcastle University)

  • Click on the schematic work plan below for more details (PDF document):

Benefits of the research

We will develop and use a conceptual model of dairy-social-environment interactions at landscape level to investigate a range of dairy farming interventions that can increase the resilience and sustainability of production in the face of difficult to predict interactions between environmental, social and market forces. To achieve this, we will:

  • Work with the dairy industry to identify cost-effective farm and sector-level interventions that can enact the principles contained in the Dairy 2020 Vision and the Leading the Way Sustainable Growth Plan and deliver measurable improvements in environmental sustainability and resilience of milk supply

  • Work with dairy farmers, the dairy industry and the Government to develop scalable new pricing models based on Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) that can generate additional income for farmers whilst providing security of supply and protecting natural capital, in the context of the emerging post-Brexit agricultural policy regime in England and Scotland

  • Combine empirical, experimental and monitoring in-situ and remote sensing to gather data on environmental impacts, animal health and milk yield to build a scientifically robust evidence base on the impacts, synergies and trade-offs of identified interventions on biodiversity, vegetation, soil, water, animal health and milk production

  • Work with the devolved administrations, Defra and Third Sector to inform the development of food, farming and environmental policy relating to PES, natural capital and adapting to environmental change, and supporting the Government's role in providing early warning of major, notifiable or new and emerging animal diseases in the dairy sector

Engagement with the farming community

Engagement with the farming community

The research has been designed to build on, and work closely with, a significant and active programme of dairy farmer engagement in two study areas that is being carried out by Nestlé and its partners 3Keel, Business in the Community, Innovation for Agriculture, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Rivers Trusts and the Wildlife Trusts. This on-going programme - part of their 'Working With Nature' initiative - involves milk price premiums paid by Nestlé to farmers carrying out land-based environmental interventions as part of the programme. This creates a guaranteed pool of at least 100 farmers, with whom we will have direct access for the research. 

Engagement with other stakeholders

We are engaging a strong stakeholder Advisory Group, which will meet annually to:

  • Ensure project goals are consistent with the needs of beneficiaries, suggesting where feasible, additional work to help realise impacts

  • Review and provide feedback on project progress towards stated goals

  • Provide feedback on scenarios and take part in “social innovation labs” to identify new ways of enhancing the resilience and sustainability of dairy systems

  • Contribute towards options for upscaling project findings internationally


Advisory Group (Chaired by Prof Tim Benton, University of Leeds):

  • Dairy industry: Nestlé UK&I (Andrew Griffiths), ASDA (Chris Brown) and Co-op (Sarah Wakefield), Arla (Richard Laxton), FirstMilk (Lee Truelove) and Dairycrest (Matt Bardell), AHDB (Tom Hind), Business in the Community (Katie Spooner/Gudrun Cartwright), 3Keel (Tom Curtis) and Innovation for Agriculture (David Gardner)

  • Environment: the River Trusts (Alistair Maltby), the Wildlife Trusts (Jonathan Hughes) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (Alistair Leake)

  • Research: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (Gemma Cranston), N8 AgriFood (Anthonia James and Mark Reed)

  • Policy: Defra (Lucy Dorey-Robinson), Natural England (David Burton), Scottish Government (Nia Ball), Scottish Natural Heritage (Cecile Smith)


A wider Reference Group is being established, which will be regularly updated on project progress, with the opportunity to meet and discuss findings as necessary.

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