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Clarion Congress & Hotel, Io


Orla Shortall, James Hutton Institute, UK.


Topic: Cows eat grass, don’t they? Contrasting sociotechnical imaginaries of the role of grazing in the UK and Irish dairy sectors

Keywords: dairy, indoor farming, grazing, pasture, sociotechnical imaginary


The role of grazing in dairy farming has become increasingly contentious. Dairy farming is still widely identified with imagery of cows grazing on grass, but grazing is a declining practice in Europe. The UK and Ireland make for interesting case studies to explore the politics of dairy cows grazing as both countries are seen to have suitable conditions for supporting grazing dairy production but their dairy systems are structured very differently. This paper explores the sociotechnical imaginaries of a high welfare, environmentally sustainable dairy farming in the UK and Ireland.

Document analysis and interviews with key UK and Irish stakeholders revealed different sociotechnical imaginaries within and between countries. The paper identifies there sociotechnical imaginaries in each country. The dominant imaginary in Ireland was of a unified grass based production system that is seen as low cost and low risk for the farmer, high welfare because animals have access to pasture and inherently natural and environmentally sustainable because of the reliance on grass land. The dominant sociotechnical imaginary in the UK by contrast is that no system is better than another but the success of a system depends on quality management, stock keeping and decisions appropriate to the farmer’s market and geographical conditions.

The paper explores the extent to which the sociotechnical imaginaries are comparable between countries by showing how they are co-created by policy, market conditions and commitments to particular conceptions of economic viability, high welfare and sustainability. There is a real sense in which the Irish and UK dairy sectors are not comparable, and produce milk to different specifications for different markets, from cows bred for different purposes. However, the different sociotechnical imaginaries can also be seen to pose a challenge to the other to the extent that science is held up as producing objective and a-contextual truths about best form of dairy production.

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