Agro-ecological Knowledge Hub

Finland

Transition process towards more carbon neutral milk production in Nivala region

Key Dilemma and key research question

How to reduce harmful climate, water and soil impacts of dairy farming in Nivala region without sacrificing economic viability of the local dairy sector, by means of envisioning and implementing a multipurpose bio-product plant along the principles of circular bioeconomy, with the aim of producing bioenergy (mainly biogas) and organic fertilizers from manure. What are incentives of the major actors to support the transition process towards more carbon neutral milk production in Nivala region? What are barriers that may prevent the bio-product plant to become realized despite of almost unanimous local consensus backing the idea?  

Short description of key characteristics

Dairy farming is the most economically, environmentally and socially important type of farming in Finland. Close to 48% of the value of agricultural production in Finland is in animal husbandry and most of it comes from the dairy farms (6 704 in 2017). The number of dairy farms in Finland is declining and the share of imported dairy products is increasing, which signals lack of competiveness and problems for economic and social sustainability. To increase economic returns of domestic production several types of subsidies are paid to dairy farms, including investment subsidies to promote establishing larger farms, which are thus able to produce milk at lower cost. For the domestic milk market this leads to larger farms pushing smaller farms out of the business. The decline in farm numbers can lead to social problems as sparsely populated rural communities lose people and tax payers. For environment, what might first seem as positive development in the efficiency of milk production that saves resources, has had negative consequences in the form of water and climate emissions as well as deteriorated soil quality. For water quality, the growth in unit size increases the amount of manure produced in a single farm, thus increasing the quantities of nutrients on fields that are located within economically meaningful transport distances, which in turn increases the eutrophication of surface water. For climate, the greenhouse gas emissions are greatly increased when the increase of animal numbers leads to clearing peatland soils for agriculture to produce more feed within feasible transport distance and also to cope with the limitations set in the agri-environmental policy to prevent over fertilisation in order to avoid the water pollution.
Bio-product plants producing both bioenergy and organic fertilizers are seen as a solution to all of these environmental problems, as well as, a way to promote economic sustainability by facilitating dairy farm growth. For climate impact, bioenergy production in the form of biogas would capture methane that could have been otherwise lost as emissions from manure storages. Methane can be used to replace fossil fuels within agricultural production system or in society in general, for example in the transport sector. For water quality, the benefits are more complicated to derive, but in theory, fertiliser production at the bio-product plant could alleviate local water quality concerns by improving the economic feasibility of dispersing nutrient from concentrated dairy farms to fields that have less nutrient load concerns.  

Key actors involved

Valio (the biggest dairy cooperative and milk processor in Finland), dairy farmers in Nivala, Gasum (a state owned energy company with special interest on biogas), the town of Nivala.

Expected Results

  • Identification and development of sustainability indicators and tools able to assess environmental and climatic issues relevant to more carbon neutral milk production in Nivala region
  • Assessment of potential economic, social and environmental consequences of the bio-product plant investment in the circular bioeconomy context
  • Assessment of incentives of the major actors to support the transition process towards more carbon neutral milk production in Nivala region 
  • Evaluation of barriers that may prevent the bio-product plant to become realized despite its extensive local support