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Preparing dairy sector for climate change

16 May, 2014

A joint research project involving Charles Sturt University (CSU) has examined how Australian farming industries are responding to demands for more sustainable production.

Leading social researcher Associate Professor Vaughan Higgins, who is also Associate Director of CSU's Institute for Land, Water and Society, examined how farming industries including dairying are responding to the challenges posed by climate change and government pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

"Dairy processors are looking for ways to manage future risks, including pressures from markets and governments to reduce emissions, without affecting their current abilities to meet demand for milk and milk products," Professor Higgins said.

"The main priority for milk processors at present is to meet minimum environmental requirements required by government regulations.

"However, this is likely to change if Australian governments introduce incentives or mandatory measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or if overseas markets pressure Australian processors to provide information on the greenhouse gas emissions from production of their milk products."

Professor Higgins believes that dairy processors are willing to use tools such as the Dairy Self-Assessment Tool (DairySAT) to encourage improved environmental practices by their milk suppliers, including responding to on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.

"DairySAT is one way for dairy farmers to voluntarily assess their businesses for how well they meet their industry's environmental standards," he said.

"It is also an important way in which processors can address future risk while considering existing business pressures to continually supply fresh milk."

However, to date, dairy processors have received little demand from customers to supply them with environmentally certified milk products, they have a priority to meet food standards, and they fear losing milk suppliers if they impose more requirements on them. This may constrain the capacities of the dairy industry to respond to climate change, Professor Higgins said.

"At the same time, using DairySAT provides an important foundation for processors to quickly adapt should governments or overseas markets in the future require evidence of environmentally sound milk production practices," he said.

Professor Higgins' comments arise from ten extended interviews with executives from dairy organisations, companies and cooperatives as well as government agencies around Gippsland in southern Victoria, one of the heartlands of the Australian dairy industry. The project "Sustainable Farming in Australia: Market Instruments for Improved Land Management" was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

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