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

Journal of Rural Studies

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 grazing as both countries are seen to have suitable conditions for supporting grazing but their dairy systems are very different. This paper explores the sociotechnical imaginaries of a high welfare, environmentally sustainable and economically viable dairy farming in the UK and Ireland, as described by key industry, academic, non-governmental organisation and government stakeholders in both countries.

Document analysis and interviews with key UK and Irish stakeholders revealed different sociotechnical imaginaries within and between countries. The dominant imaginary in Ireland was of a unified low cost grass based production system seen as high welfare because animals have access to pasture and inherently natural and environmentally sustainable. The dominant sociotechnical imaginary in the UK by contrast is that no system is better, but the success of a system depends on quality management and stock keeping.

The paper shows how the sociotechnical imaginaries are co-created by policy, market conditions and commitments to particular conceptions of economic viability, high welfare and sustainability. 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 value free truths about the best form of dairy production.

Orla Shortall Bw

Dr Orla Shortall

Agricultural Social Scientist,

The James Hutton Institute