It is possible to farm sustainably without harmful chemicals and while producing enough food to feed the UK if significant dietary change takes place, a ground-breaking new report has found.
Cutting intensive pig, poultry and dairy production by around half, cutting cereal crops by 20 per cent, while increasing tree crops like fruit and nuts by almost 500 per cent, are part of how the UK could cut emissions from land use and farming by 38 per cent, with a total elimination of artificial chemicals and soya imports for feed. The latter will also help to further reduce indirect emissions from UK food through soya’s link to deforestation.
The transformation should be underpinned by a major shift in diets, including moving away from ultra-processed foods and sugars, while animal products produced on low intensive systems should make up one of the recommended three protein sources a day. Ruminant livestock is only marginally reduced under the model, due to its key role in natural fertilisation and replacing chemicals.
Legumes and pulses would triple in production, while significant growth in agroforestry will contribute to both an increase in fruit and nuts, while storing and offsetting carbon.
Commissioned by the Food and Farming Commission (FFC) and published today (7 January), the report builds on a landmark study by French think tank IDDRI called Ten Years to Agroecology, hailed as the first quantifiable evidence that an alternative and non-intensive farming system is viable, and would produce enough food.
Sue Pritchard, FFC chief executive, told Wicked Leeks: “This report really answers the question: is it possible to feed the UK through agroecological farming practices? The short answer is yes.”
The report covers five ‘questions’ around diet, carbon, ruminants, productivity and nature, and tackling all five is the most significant aspect, said Pritchard. “It helps us think about dietary change, restoring biodiversity, tackling net zero and creating viable farm businesses,” she said.
While organisations like the NFU are plotting a route to net zero in farming, the FFC report models how a reduction of 38 per cent is achievable while also tackling declines in nature, for example.
“Current evidence seems to suggest that the nature crisis is going to kill us before the climate crisis does, from soil health right through to the loss of whole ecosystems,” said Pritchard, who said that the biggest trade-off will not be between carbon and nature, but in what we eat.
“What this report is telling us is the trade-offs we need to make are around the extent to which we are prepared to move into a major dietary shift.”
The UK would increase self-sufficiency in some areas under the model, but would also trade with close neighbours to maximise what is best suited to each area. Cutting intensive pork and poultry would reduce the need for soya-based animal feed, while ruminant livestock are primarily fed on grass.
“Some people want us to take land out of production for rewilding to intensify production elsewhere, but these leave questions around the rural economies living there, or how intensification of any kind tends to increase the control of the food system in fewer hands,” said Pritchard.
Although yields would reduce “in line with that under an organic system”, Pritchard said “we shouldn’t underestimate the scope for innovation and farmer-led research”, such as companion crop planting and robotics.
She said the study has raised further questions, but added: “I am incredibly excited about it: This study is a body of evidence that is helping to shape a global movement as other countries pick up on the promise of agroecology.”