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Using reference values to assess environmental sustainability of dairy farms

Abstract : One challenge for the environmental assessment of agricultural systems is to progress from estimating whether one farming system has fewer impacts than another to estimating whether or not it can be considered environmentally sustainable. To this end, we developed reference values (RVs) of farm emissions or energy use per hectare that defined hypothetical sustainability thresholds in each of three impact categories: climate change, water-quality degradation and non-renewable energy use. We applied one RV per category to the potential impacts (estimated by life-cycle assessment) of 45 French dairy farms to identify farms below RVs in each impact category and then evaluated their management and production characteristics. Seventeen of the 45 farms lie below at least one of the three RVs. Groups of farms below RVs had a higher percentage of organic farms, larger mean usable agricultural area, longer mean pasture residence time and lower mean inputs of concentrate feed and nitrogen than those above the same RVs. In consequence, the groups below RVs also tended to have lower mean milk production per cow and per hectare. All milk production systems can move toward environmental sustainability even though, according to production mode and intensity, some potential impacts are easier to reduce than others. Most farms were unable to attain the lowest RVs, suggesting that policy-makers may need to consider less ambitious RVs for existing agricultural systems. Otherwise, the distance between normative RVs and indicator values of dairy farms suggest that production and consumption of agricultural products will need to change if sustainability goals do not.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 2:15:09 PM
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I. Acosta Alba, Michael S. Corson, H.M.G. van Der Werf, Philippe Leterme. Using reference values to assess environmental sustainability of dairy farms. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2012, 27 (3), pp.217-227. ⟨10.1017/s1742170511000329⟩. ⟨hal-00849188⟩



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