Dairy in Europe has undergone many changes in the last few years—the abolition of milk production quotas being a fundamental one. This study explores these changes in relation to the sustained social and environmental viability of the sector and how dairy processors' sustainability programs are a part of that.
Regime change as outlined in transition theory enhanced through a sociological approach on actors informed this research. More specifically, the notion of obligatory passage points was used to explore the mechanisms through which dominant actors make certain actions mandatory and reify their status as indispensable. The thesis consists of three case studies: the dairy sectors in the Netherlands, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The cases trace the evolution of all sectors since the post-war era, outlining the dominant logic that has guided its development. The sustainability programs of three dairy processors—located in each of the case countries—are also part of the analysis. Data was collected through document analysis and semi-structured interviews.
The analysis shows that the post-war logic based on the increase of scale and intensification of dairying has continued to shape the development of the sector through today. While the visible impacts of intensive dairy have led to adaptations to the dominant rules and practices, these changes have not been fundamental in nature. The analysis of dairy processors and their sustainability programs revealed that these programs can be an additional tool for compliance to legal standards and the alleviation of pressing societal concerns. However, processors address social and environmentally relevant dairy-related challenges when an effective link to profit can be established. These programs have been unable to ensure that the dairy sector operates within established environmental limits and societal expectations, while providing a stable livelihood for farmers.
This research contributes to the understanding of sustainability (agri-food) transitions by identifying the mechanisms through which the regime adapts to the shifting environment and dominant actors strive for their own continuity. It also adds to the debate about the role that incumbent actors can have in sustainability transitions—their involvement is important but they are unable to guide such processes. This study advances the empirical ground in sustainability transition studies by focusing on systems in which change is less likely to be technologically driven and where social change plays a larger role. Finally, this thesis connects past development, current challenges, and present engagement in a discussion about the future development of the dairy sector; this adds to the further conceptualization of the complexity and co-evolutionary nature of sustainability transitions.