Industry maps path to green milk supply chain

The government has brokered a range of voluntary environmental goals with the milk supply chain.1But it will be some time before it becomes clear whether the agreement will deliver on its promises.

Dairy processors and farmers reached an agreement in May with the Environment Department (DEFRA) to reduce the impact of milk over the next 12 years by signing up to a range of environmental goals (see box below).

The agreement addresses the liquid milk market, which accounts for about half of UK production. It was drawn up by a taskforce chaired by the trade body for milk processors Dairy UK and includes other associations and businesses from the farming, retailing and animal feed supply chain. It is the first of ten "product roadmaps" DEFRA is developing (ENDS Report 391, pp 51-52 ).

Goals set for farmers include recycling and recovering more waste, reducing water use, planning nutrient inputs, increasing renewables and reducing their farm’s ‘greenhouse gas balance’, which takes into account carbon stored in soils, trees and pasture and the emissions avoided by using renewable energy.

Processors have agreed to increase the recycled content of packaging materials to 50% by 2020, reduce water use and the chemical oxygen demand of effluent, send less waste to landfill and adopt environmental management systems for all sites.

Dairy UK and the National Farmers Union said the goals were "stretching" but in some cases they largely seek to ensure farmers comply with regulations or anticipate future legal requirements.

For example, the "aspirational target" to recycle and recover 70% of non-natural farm wastes will be "enabled by the introduction of the producer responsibility scheme for non-packaging farm plastics", but the target is subject to change following the regulations’ publication (see p 49 ).

Likewise, the roadmap says the target adopted on nutrient planning represents the proportion of farms that would be covered by the revised nitrate vulnerable zones action programme (ENDS Report 392, pp 44-45 ).

In other cases, it is difficult to assess what the targets will achieve. For example, dairy farmers have agreed to reduce the ‘greenhouse gas balance’ of farms by 20-30% by 2020 compared with a 1990 baseline. But is unclear whether the approach will deliver absolute reductions or simply improve the efficiency of farms, but allow increased production. Dairy farms already emit 13.5% less methane than in 1990 because of declines in herd size. Carbon dioxide emissions have also fallen 23% since 2000 because nitrogen fertiliser production has improved.

The NFU is promoting the greenhouse gas balance approach as a way of measuring farm carbon footprints. It is still in its infancy and a robust methodology and supporting guidance will be needed to ensure its credibility. Taskforce chairman Ed Komorowski, Dairy UK’s technical director, said there is "plenty of time" to debate the methodology and produce guidance to help meet the 2020 target. He said it was important to get farmers looking at practical options, such as better nutrient planning and herd health management to reduce methane emissions and increase farm productivity.

Green groups, such as Friends of the Earth, have voiced concern over what they believe are gaps in the plan, such as the impact of imported animal feed made from soya (see p 24 ). Mr Komorowski said "in principle" the taskforce should look at the issue.

The roadmap also does not address consumption, but DEFRA said future research would look at this and would take into account information due from the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme on consumer behaviour.

There are also questions over how the targets will be achieved and who will ensure they are met. The NFU said plans will be developed over the next few months and the taskforce will continue to review performance against targets and adjust them if necessary.

"It’s a trial for going down the route of lighter touch regulation," said Paul Evans, agricultural policy manager at the Environment Agency. "If it works it tells us industry has the maturity to work on this basis and that we can continue down this path."