frcFree Range Dairy Network is a member of the Food Research Collaboration and I was pleased to attend the workshop looking at collaboration between civil society and academics recently.

The workshop explored the barriers and challenges to collaborating and in my previous role as a campaigner I have plenty of experience of when collaboration works and when it doesn’t.  The best example of collaboration was when I worked on the  Smoke Free Legislation Campaign. On this campaign people came together with the same aim but from a different angle. The group consisted of NGOs such as Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation and Asthma UK, each could talk about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke but bring their own expertise and a fresh angle to the campaign. The worst collaboration, and I won’t name names, was when we had the same aims but all worked in the same sector. It started to feel like collaboration was a chore rather than an asset, with each fighting to be the lead person and get the lion’s share of the media spotlight.

There was an impressive list of people at the FRC workshop but one theme which ran through the day was the need for more funding as funding options have become limited. Although Michael Gove might think People in this country have had enough of experts. I for one like to base the work we do at Free Range Dairy Network on research and consult experts when we’ve looking for advice.  I think the lack of funding reflects the lack of importance the government puts on finding sustainable food production solutions for the UK. When I attended a meeting at Defra last year to discuss their food and farming strategy for the next 25 years it was all about how do we get people to consume more and produce more to sell? When I suggested that as we look to the future and that we need to  reduce in resources over those next 25 years maybe we should be looking to consume less, produce better quality and waste less. People turned and looked at me as if I was insane. One person turned to me and asked – how will we feed the growing population of 9 billion people in the future? Firstly, they are not all going to live in the UK. Secondly we can already produce enough food in the world to feed the growing population. We need to be able to produce enough food but those food production methods need to be geared towards the needs of the future problems we anticipate such as climate change, the need to reduce food consumption and make it less wasteful and harmful to the environment.

One thing that came out of the Smoke Free Legislation Campaign and shown by Action on Smoking and Health was how research funded or linked too much to industry can mean the research is presented in a way that might suit their aims rather than the truth. This is something that concerns me about industry financing intensive dairy units attached to agricultural or veterinary colleges. It can be seen as a chance for students to learn within a brand new unit and using new equipment or does it normalise working within an intensive unit for our young vets and farmers?

In the case of Free Range Dairy Network collaboration is key. We work with farmers, academics, processors, wholesalers, NGOs and consumers to bring a sustainably produced milk from a pasture based dairy system. What is clear, collaboration is important whether it’s with the government, academia or the civil society if we’re to find positive solutions for the changes needed to benefit the wider society.

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