Transitions to resilience and sustainability through UK dairy systems and supply chain innovation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography


This project will explore new ways to make dairy systems better for the natural environment and farmers' livelihoods, while maintaining the long-term supply of dairy products at reasonable prices in the face of unpredictable challenges like climate change.

We will do this by combining the latest natural, social, biological and veterinary science with industry expertise and experiential farmer knowledge, to devise and test innovations that could increase the resilience and sustainability of dairy farming in a rapidly changing world.


The UK alone has the tenth largest dairy sector in the world, producing 14 percent of the EU's milk and representing over two per cent of global milk production. A sustainable dairy industry must improve or maintain water, biodiversity and soil quality, meet social expectations, offer farmers a livelihood and provide accessible and affordable dairy products to consumers. However, a number of important changes threaten the long-term future of the sector.

The UK dairy industry has suffered from low and sometimes negative profit margins in recent years, worsened by high input costs, competition between retailers, global oversupply and, since 2014, Russian dairy import bans. Dairy production depends on nature but, if poorly managed, can erode the natural capital upon which it depends, for example by polluting rivers. Dairy systems also use a lot of water, and so are vulnerable to reductions in water availability and quality caused by climate change, and they are also vulnerable to the introduction of new animal diseases transmitted by ticks or insects. In order 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.


We will do this by investigating 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, that are designed to improve animal health and milk production while improving the natural environment. This will include the use of new pricing models being piloted by Nestle 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. We will also investigate a range of other innovative interventions, which we will develop in collaboration with farmers and other stakeholders, for example new techniques for loosening compacted soils and methods from precision agriculture. 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, biological 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 (notably feeding into their two forthcoming 25-year plans) 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.

Technical Summary

The project will explore opportunities to increase resilience and sustainability of food production landscapes and their supply chains in three phases, using the UK dairy sector as a case study.

The research seeks to understand possible trajectories of dairy production systems in response to multiple interacting drivers of change. It will explore functional links between ecosystem services, resilience and sustainability, exploring the extent to which changes in ecosystem stocks and services impact the resilience and sustainability of dairy production systems, supply chains and benefits to other locations and socio-economic sectors. It will investigate the social structures and interactions that are necessary to facilitate social innovation for resilience and sustainability, based on principles or Responsible Research and Innovation.

The first phase will develop systems models to derive novel academic insights and scenarios with stakeholders. Concurrently, empirical research on ecosystem functioning and animal health will be conducted in two contrasting UK dairy regions, where our project partners already have practical interventions and stakeholder networks in place. In the second phase, we will build ecosystem services and disease models, based on new and historical data and remote-sensed datasets. The third phase focuses on scaling up interventions, which have been evaluated through empirical case study research in the second phase, to broader spatial scales.

Planned Impact

Impact goal: to develop and use a whole food system model to evaluate and then propose 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 goal, we will:
* Work with the dairy industry to identify cost-effective farm and food system-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 securing long-term milk supply
* Work with dairy farmers, the dairy industry and 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
* Engage will innovators and influencers from business, government and the third sector to support the transformation of ecosystem management within the dairy supply chain, in Cumbria and Girvan, and across different commodities at a national and international scale
* Work with the devolved administrations, Defra (notably feeding into their forthcoming 25-year plans) 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 Government's role in providing early warning of major, notifiable or new and emerging animal diseases in the diary sector

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 that is being carried out by Nestle and its partners (Business in the Community (BiTC), Innovation for Agriculture, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Rivers Trusts (RTs)), in both study areas. This on-going programme - part of their 'Working With Nature' initiative - already involves an investment of around £2 million per year by Nestle in the form of milk price premiums paid to farmers carrying out land-based environmental interventions as part of the programme. This creates a guaranteed pool of 101 farmers, with whom we will have direct access for the research.

Engagement with the Global Food Security programme: the project team, led by the PI, will engage with ongoing and future activities of the GFS to ensure effective two-way knowledge exchange with GFS partners.

Planned engagement with other stakeholders via Advisory Group (roles and activities in Case for Support):
* Nestle UK&I (Andrew Griffiths)
* ASDA (Chris Brown) and Co-op (Sarah Wakefield)
* Arla (Richard Laxton), FirstMilk (Ian Critchley) and Dairycrest (Matt Bardell)
* Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (Gemma Cranston), N8 AgriFood (Katherine Denby/Jonathan Oxley)
* BiTC (Gudrun Cartwright/Katie Spooner), Innovation for Agriculture (David Gardner), GWCT (Alistair Leake), RTs (Alistair Maltby)
* Defra (Lucy Dorey-Robinson), Natural England (David Burton), Scottish Government (Nia Ball), Scottish Natural Heritage (Cecile Smith)

Complemented by a wider Reference Group regularly updated on project progress, including:
* Sainsbury's
* Tesco
* Waitrose
* M&S
* Unilever
* Wheatsheaf/Grosvenor Estate Farm
* Müller Milk & Ingredients
* Meadow Foods
* Danone
* Crown Estates
* Anglian Water, United Utilities and Scottish Water
* Volac
* Glanbia
* Yara
* Lactalis McLelland
* AH


10 25 50
Description We found that soil carbon sequestration under hedgerows is significant compared to biomass. It is also important to measure soil carbon up to 50cm not just top 30cm. We also found that private funded agri-environmental scheme can accelerate hedgerow planting and make it more viable for climate mitigation in the UK.
Exploitation Route We are working on including some of the findings in developing carbon codes
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description The project developed (with Leeds contribution) a policy note focused on the LENs approach, and a second policy note on public goods
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Review of existing blended finance schemes and who they can link to LENs approach used in Dairy project
Amount £3,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2020 
End 03/2020
Description Collaboration with SRUC 
Organisation Scotland's Rural College
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are coordinating the study in Cumbria and SRUC study in Scotland
Collaborator Contribution Exchange of information on ongoing field research
Impact Too early to list outcomes
Start Year 2018
Description Participate in workshops of Natural Trust on Payments by Outcomes 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Discussions organizing by NT to find ways to measure the outcomes of farmers activities in a PES like scheme (similar to what Nestle is doing in this project)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description The impact of hedges maturation on soil organic carbon stocks in agricultural landscapes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talk presented at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) 2021 conference. EGU is Europe's premier union of geoscientists and their virtual conference was attended by 18155 scientists from 136 countries. On average, sessions were attended by 140 researchers. We presented our research on the soil organic carbon storage capacity of hedgerows, which will be useful to other environmental scientists and policy makers for future climate change mitigation modelling and measures.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021