Ecological farming can feed UK if diets change

New report outlines how diets can support an ecological farming system in the UK to cut carbon, restore nature and preserve farming livelihoods.

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.”

Mole End Farms
An increase in tree crops like fruit and nuts will help farms store and offset carbon. 

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.”


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  1. The traffic light scheme to advise consumers regarding diet has been very successful.

    I think that a similar scheme is needed to advise consumers regarding the carbon cost of their diets.

    This would I think go some way to educate consumers that it is not a good idea for example to buy fruit and veg that has been flown into the UK – a resulting fall in demand could even make this practice uneconomic..

    More effort would be needed to cut our addiction to dairy products and meat – especially beef – I guess that is something that will be down to the next generation in much the same way as awareness of climate change seems to have permeated from the youngsters.

    1. Did you read the article? You seem to miss the target… It results that intensive pig and poultry operations are more responsible for soy imports etc than beef, and that cattle can be fed grass easily in the UK.
      They also suggest to reduce imports and SUGAR and to reduce cereals too.
      There is no known addiction to meat, but to sugars yes.

    2. Yes, soy imports are certainly very bad news as you say but the problem with beef and dairy products with regard to carbon emissions isn’t what the animals are fed, it is the methane that they produce.

      Addiction is probably the wrong word – encourage a reduction in the amount of dairy products and beef that we eat is better.

      The very worst scenario is in the US where they keep vast herds of beef cattle on concrete pads and feed them with soy – mostly imported from South America – a double whammy that is turned into a triple whammy because of the large portion sizes they consume.

    3. You can be surprised if you learn more about the carbon cycle and what else emits methane… Methane from animals is not the culprit (It is not the cow… it is the grass! and there used to be more animals, they are carbon positive if the management is right). Actually, methane and CO2 are part of a short cycle above soil, carbon positive in case of grazing, and the real culprit is fossil carbon burning: about 75% of GHG…. but a different origin! It was buried and out of the surface cycles!!!!

      Cows are scapegoated (scapecowed?) because we don’t want to de-grow industry. Ruminants are essential for soils, as soil health is = to gut health. Probiotics… Then no need for fertilizers nor pesticides as plants can defend themselves.

      In farming, crop agriculture is more of a problem… Tilling emits methane, compost making emits methane, trees, all wild animals and us, landfills if you leave food craps in your bin…

      So of course, crops for animals are not ok (but mostly, animals get what do not pass edibility tests like mycotoxins + craps from beer or tofu or oil or juices making).

      – Separate the 2 different carbon’s orgin, superficial or buried.
      – Separate the 2 ways to farm ANY food, carbon friendly or petrol dependent.
      – Don’t separate plants and animals in farming, as in nature.
      – Animals need to peepoo where they eat, grazing.
      – CAFOs and cages are not ok.
      Encourage regenerative agriculture and agro-forestry (trees + animals)

      If you prefer and if you cannot access regeneratively produced good animal products + want to boycott industrial farming, then go plant-based with a flexitarian mind (cravings for wholes foods are not addictions but NEEDS), as too many people crash after 3 years of an exclusive plant diet.

      Also in case of eating plant-based, eat whole foods, not ultra-processed foods, eat absolutely local, because fossil emissions are the worse and not equivalent. Thus it will be seasonal too.

      And here is a University paper:

    4. My youngish step children are addicted to meat… It is hard to feed a child a low dairy and meat diet when they are used to it for 2-3 meals a day.

    5. Alice, when it is real whole food, it is not an addiction but a NEED.
      Sugar is proven addictive. Actually, some people go full animal-based for health reasons (and some are ex-plant-based who got ill), and their main issue after adaptation to ketosis is to be full too soon and to rarely eat more than 2 meals a day!

      If you look at baby-led weaning, you will see that instinct is reliable for whole foods. Look at our answer above, to feel less guilty about meat, by knowing where to split your food choices.

      Some animal products are bad, when industrially produced. But plant agriculture is not good either if industrial, and soil science is just beginning (very similar to gut science about probiotics!)

      Animals are needed, and domesticated ones are a good choice because re-wilding will mean fencing crops or more killing to protect them. Killing for plant agriculture is Enormous! And the big modern problem is that nowadays those animals are rarely eaten, but are cremated or buried!

      Think on the other side that a meadow is biodiverse, full of native plants and not a mono-crop, and full of flowers and insects! And if you boycott the wrong king of food production, let’s applause! But the right Vs wrong is not plant Vs Animals. A mixed farming with more trees as said in the article, with less dependence on petrol is the key.

    6. THIS ! I would love to be able to know this instantly. So many of my food choices are made by the traffic light signal.. even if it is between bread and butter pudding and Sticky Tofee pudding! .

  2. I am not an expert but I have chosen for a while to eat only British produce. I would like to know more about this report and would like to introduce significant dietary changes. I wonder whether there is a pilot going? Is there a way to get more involved? thank you!

    1. Bruna, we have a page in fb… with varied information about choosing food. If you eat whole traditional foods, local, seasonal and follow your inner instinct, you are already doing good. Also you can find such pages as Ethical Omnivore movement, English farmers pages showing the right way to work…

  3. I feel it is necessary to make more information available to vegans about the negatives of a processed food vegan diet. I have vegan friends who are now diabetic, and those who are unwell. I was vegan for 20 years and now I am an omnivore, eating locally grown organic as much as is financially possible. I do still sometimes find it difficult eating meat but I believe we need farm animals to replenish the soil. The soil is very depleted, not many harvests left in it if it is on a poor diet too. Local, seasonal and sustainable is the way forward.

    1. I was vegan too and messed up my metabolism. I am now omnivore and, like Suzy], I eat mainly locally produced food, organic and ethically farmed animals and fish.

    1. Yes! Everyone should watch Sacred Cow and read the book of the same name, for the environmental, nutritional and ethical case for eating meat. It’s an important alternative perspective to the view that we should all be turning vegan.

  4. Are they really suggesting we eat animal products every day? I am astonished. Such demand will inevitably result in cutting corners and animal suffering, even in low intensive systems. Current laws do not do enough to protect these animals, and I have no confidence in humanity to do this with compassion. Just look at what we have done so far.

    ‘while animal products produced on low intensive systems should make up one of the recommended three protein sources a day’.

    1. I don’t think the suggestion is that we should eat meat every day. It’s merely a recognition that we are omnivores not herbivores and that in order to get enough essential amino acids we need to eat meat at least once a, fortnight. As is pointed out, some animal husbandry is essential if we are to maintain the fertility of the soil.

    2. Thank you Richard for your reply; eating meat once a fortnight sounds better than every day, but I must say the sentence quoted really is open to misinterpretation and does read as if animal products are recommended every day.
      I understand why so many people believe we need to consume animal protein, this is still being taught to medical students. But it is a myth that essential amino acids are only available from animal sources. All essential amino acids are available from every single food, except gelatine. Certainly in the West, the vast majority have such a wide variety of food that everyone, including vegans, will obtain all the essential amino acids required, even without protein complementation. This is documented in the latest nutrition and biochemistry text books and published papers including the following: Young VR, Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clinical Nutrition. 1994; 59(suppl):1203S–1212S.
      Furthermore the 2009 American Dietetic Association’s Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets states:
      “Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.”

      It is now well documented in published academic papers that chronic diseases are reduced when consuming a plant based diet and it is not essential for human health to consume animal products at all, certainly in the West, where the majority consume twice as much protein each day than is recommended.
      Many people still believe they can only obtain ‘proper’ protein (essential amino acids) from animal sources. The repercussion of this myth on the environment, our health and animal welfare are extremely serious. Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge I am not an expert in the ecological impacts of animal husbandry, so cannot comment on your final statement regarding soil fertility. I appreciate I need to understand this point.

    3. I agree that the original article is open to interpretation and could have been much better worded. Since it talks of reducing intensive meat production the only logical conclusion is that it also means reducing meat consumption, you can’t do one without the other. Other animal products such as cheese are less of a problem, one cow can produce a lot of milk after it’s calved.

      Regarding essential micronutrients, if you choose the right references you can prove anything. There is a division of opinion amongst “experts” and I don’t think either view has been proven. What is irrefutable is that certain essential amino acids are very difficult to obtain from a vegan diet and such diets need extremely careful planning if they are to provide a proper balance. Read what “Suzy” wrote above. It’s much simpler and less risky to eat meat very infrequently and other animal products a little more often. We are omnivores not herbivores. We have evolved as omnivores and you can’t undo millions of years of evolution in one generation.

      As far as soil fertility goes, I believe Guy has written about this on a number of occasions. You can make do without animal manures but maintaining the long term health of the soil is fraught with problems under such a regime. Removing crops from the soil depletes the soil,

    4. Thank you for your reply Richard and I certainly agree one can cherry pick peer reviewed articles to suit ones opinion. But this would be completely unprofessional of me, one has to present a balanced summary of the evidence, whilst eliminating publications with a clear conflict of interest. We will have to agree to disagree on the matter, as well as whether we evolved as omnivores, again there is plenty of evidence to the contrary according to my colleagues who are better informed than me. I have of course read the comments by ‘Suzy’, but the consensus of opinion is that in the West we cannot help obtain all the essential amino acids required, because our diet, in general, is so varied. So much so, it is now a joke among my colleagues in this subject, when the question is posed to a vegan ‘but where do you get your protein’? There are many extremely successful serious vegan athletes who attest to this point. Of course this is not the case in other parts of the world, where food is so much less varied and is not abundant.
      I do agree that one needs to be very careful and plan well on a vegan diet, especially with vitamin B12 among other nutrients. But it is also now accepted, whilst there are valid concerns with poorly planned vegan and vegetarian diets, it is just as important to be careful on a typical Western diet high in meat, which is deficient in vitamin C, fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Of course I realise the article, thankfully, is not advocating the latter and the advice it offers is likely to lead to far better health than our typical Western diet. A flexitarian diet based on good quality, minimal animal product consumption will diminish the huge burden and tragedy of current chronic diseases. So we have much in common in trying to change the current Western diet for the better and I am engaged in reading Guy’s useful articles on soil fertility to improve my understanding of this
      Finally, according to my ecology/zoology colleagues, it is known that dairy is indeed a problem, it has a massive negative environmental impact and the current system causes tremendous suffering to animals, even in organic farms.

    5. Thank you for your reply, whoever is hiding behind that pseudonym.

      We seem to agree that a vegan diet must be carefully planned to ensure an adequate supply of essential nutrients, not adopted willy-nilly or casually. Certainly one can obtain all the amino acids one needs from a planned vegan diet: my understanding is that the amino acid which presents the biggest challenge is lysine which can be deficient in a poorly planned diet. However, lysine is not the only essential component that can be lacking. Iron, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids can mostly be obtained from plant sources but not without careful planning and not necessarily in sufficient quantities. Vitamin D is a serious problem in the winter if you live at our latitude so it’s normally recommended to take a supplement. For me, however, the clinching factor which establishes that we are not meant to be vegan is the total absence of any known plant source of vitamin B-12 (unless you want to split hairs and call bacteria plants). In order to remain healthy vegans must take a vitamin B-12 supplement produced by bacterial fermentation and then worked up like any industrial chemical. It’s one way of living I suppose but not for me.

      You make a point about our varied diet providing a wide range of essential nutrients for vegans. Our diet is very varied in the West because we import so many foodstuffs, something which to my mind is undesirable. One of the drifts of the above article was a move towards greater self sufficiency with an implied reduced dependence on imported food. In my opinion importing food from continents where people go hungry is hardly desirable let alone ethical.

      As somebody who believes that “one has to present a balanced summary of the evidence” you do yourself a disservice by using unattributed and unsubstantiated sources in your arguments, “The last refuge of a scoundrel”, to partially quote Dr Johnson out of context. You contend, without evidence, that we didn’t evolve as omnivores. It’s certainly true that we were hunter gatherers before we left Africa so presumably you are going back further than that. Looking at our closest relatives amongst animals, most of the great apes eat some non-plant matter in the form of insects or eggs. In addition, our nearest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, is now known to eat meat, believed to form around 6% of their diet. So if we’re looking for antecedents of the extant apes who weren’t omnivores we’re certainly going back a very long way, which is rather stretching a point. We evolved as omnivores and we are omnivores.

      I also take issue with your final paragraph. Certainly its true that ruminants produce methane which has very deleterious effects on the climate, mole for mole much greater than carbon dioxide. However, we are talking here about reducing meat production dramatically thereby reducing the methane that they produce by the same magnitude. It’s established, I believe, that some animal husbandry is essential if we are to maintain soil fertility (for examples see above and Guy’s writing on the subject). It’s also worthy of note that sheep produce high quality protein on land that is suitable for nothing else. Finally, how do you measure and quantify the “suffering” of cattle on organic farms? Would they be “happier” if we dispensed with them and culled the lot? .

  5. Soy animal feed accounts for 94% of soy production and is a major factor in pushing farmers into deforestation. However it is high in protein and any substitute would be more expensive for our farmers, and from there to our pockets. Whatever we can do to become more sustainable has to be acceptable to the general public. Can we wean them off foreign imports and cheap food? I for one would miss my blueberries for breakfast. I can’t believe how cheap food is compared to when I was younger relative to my pocket. Changing our diet in the uk is not the only thing we would have to accept, we would need to embrace paying more for our food.

  6. I think this can be achieved as well as rewilding as much as possible. Rewilded areas still produce high quality meat and other products. A system in which nature is given the lead will result in far more carbon saving and provides a proper habitat for all the wildlife – which is sadly lacking now.. If we lose all our insects – we are doomed…..
    We all need to wake up to living differently – eat sustainably, house and clothe ourselves sustainably – don’t buy anything (especially new) unless it is really needed…Cut down on our massive energy use – try using our own energy more!!

    1. Yes! I think too often the term rewilding becomes divorced from food production and is portrayed as a nature reserve. We need to integrate the wild world with food production, and our food will be all the better off for it.

      Having worked on a veg farm this summer that was not just monoculture, it was amazing to see all the wildlife live in and amongst the growing produce.

      The difficulty is to convey the co-benefits of increased bio-diversity to those who farm now, who have huge financial pressures to produce for less and less.

  7. I think it is sad that the people most at risk are the people most dependant on convenience (junk) foods. Most charities mostly distribute packaged foods because fresh food spoils quickly and because people need time and suitable kitchens to prepare it. Also, many people these days work very long hours, so they don’t have the time or inclination to prepare fresh food for themselves or their families on a daily basis. So often people rely on local takeaways or works canteens for quick, readily available food. Maybe more community kitchens distributing “real” food would help. I would rather donate to charities that genuinely help people rather than poisoning them!

    1. I think community kitchens are a great idea, teaching people to cook as well as providing cheap, nutritious meals to the public.

      In the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, as part of their zero-hunger mission, they set up four public restaurants and one cafeteria that provide low-cost meals to the public. Anyone can pitch up and the menus are designed by nutritionists especially. In 2012, they provided over 3.3 million meals to the public. Seems a much better idea than sending food boxes to families with seemingly no thought put into the contents, and what meals one can make out of them.

      If you’re interested you can find out more about belo-horizonte here, it’s an amazing food policy.

    2. I am afraid I do not agree that it is not possible to produce a meal using fresh food in a short space of time, it merely requires a bit of forward planning. I worked full time for many years and never resorted to ready meals, I have always been suspicious of the chemicals that go into them. One can prepare the ingredients the evening before and a stir fry, for example, takes less time to cook than a ready meal. A slow cooker is brilliant for casseroles, all you need to cook in the evening is the veg. If you have no slow cooker the casserole dish can be cooked in a very low oven all day. Another alternative is a pressure cooker. I think it is time that the schools went back to teaching cookery as a core subject. As far as not having a suitable kitchen goes, perhaps that is where these charities could help more by distributing things like mini ovens etc.


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