by Dr John Lynch
Can current technologies help achieve sustainable intensification of farming practices? We took evidence from milk recording on Irish dairy farms to examine environmental impacts, social acceptance and economic performance.
It is increasingly acknowledged that agriculture, and livestock production in particular, has a significant impact on the environment. But there can be large differences in the environmental performance of different farms, which makes things rather complicated, given the huge numbers of producers: 217,000 holdings in 2017 in the UK alone!
So how can we reliably estimate the impacts of individual farms? And if we had this information, could we use it to identify and promote practices or technologies that are better for the environment, for the animals, and even farm profitability?
In a recent paper in the journal Land Use Policy that I contributed to with colleagues in Ireland, we investigated how monitoring a range of farm ‘sustainability indicators’ might help answer these questions. Using farm management and production data, we generated three key indicators covering different aspects of sustainability: the environmental impacts, social acceptance, and economic performance.
Our environmental indicator looked at greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of milk produced; our social indicator a milk quality measure (‘somatic cell count’) associated with mastitis, an uncomfortable condition of the udder and an animal health and welfare concern; and our economic indicator the gross margin (€) per cow.
We were interested in whether a recommended farm technology, regular monitoring of milk for an early indication of possible mastitis, was associated with improved performance across all three of these indicators. Using detailed econometric analyses, we found that milk recording was associated with greater margins and lower milk cell counts, but did not have an effect on GHG emissions efficiency. So while the technology provides a ‘win-win’ for both social and economic sustainability, it fell short of a ‘triple-win’ covering all three sustainability pillars.