UK’s beef herds could be key to sustainable farming, says report

The UK’s beef herd could be at the heart of a sustainable farming system that tackles both the climate and wildlife crises while producing sufficient healthy food, according to a report.

However, production and consumption of other meat, milk and eggs would have to fall by half, and large forests of new trees would have to be planted, the analysis from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission charity (FFCC) found.

The analysis assessed agroecology, a type of agriculture that includes organic farming and aims to work with nature and ensure fairness to farmers, citizens and future generations. The scenario the analysis produced would see no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers in use in 2050 and almost 10% of today’s farmland freed-up for nature. Net greenhouse gas emissions would fall by about 75%, meaning the remainder would have to be removed by other means to reach the UK’s net zero target.

Experts welcomed the report but said it presented just one plausible agroecological scenario and that others with even lower livestock numbers would result in greater environmental benefits. Even the lowest impact meat produces many times the emissions of the highest impact plants, another recent study found.

Sue Pritchard, an organic farmer and FFCC chief executive, said the report showed agroecology could produce enough healthy and environmentally sustainable food for the UK, and was not just a “niche, hippy endeavour”.

“The case we’re making is that properly managed, pasture-fed beef has a really important role to play in agroecological land management systems,” she said. Cattle manure can replace synthetic fertiliser, she said, cutting climate emissions and also adding carbon to the soil. However, even in the best cases, this carbon storage offsets only 20%-60% of the total emissions from grazing cattle.

“We are not contesting at all the need to reduce meat consumption dramatically,” Pritchard said. “But you don’t have to reduce that through red meat alone.” Pork and chicken have large environmental footprints due to the large areas used to grow their feed, she said.

The report, based on new modelling by the French research institute IDDRI, found that production and consumption of pork, chicken, milk and eggs all needed to fall by about 50%, while lamb fell by a third. In the analysis, the production of beef fell only 3% by 2050, although consumption was cut by a quarter, meaning some would need to be exported. In the scenario, the UK would be self-sufficient in all these products – only milk and lamb are entirely homegrown today.

Agroecological yields are lower than conventional farming, but Pritchard said improvements could be made with investment and that mixed agroecological farming was more resilient to the impacts of the climate crisis. Cutting the 30% of food that is wasted is also important, she said.

The recovery of wildlife should be integrated with farming, she said: “I’m not arguing against some really significant rewilding projects. But all land matters and it is possible to support nature across the whole of the UK. That is much more beneficial than trying to compartmentalise the country in a really artificial way.” Others have argued that a quarter to a half of farmland needs to be transformed into natural habitat to fight the climate and biodiversity crises.

“I generally welcome the vision in the report as it does recognise the need for dietary change and for a shift towards a farming system that works with nature rather than irrespective of nature,” said Pete Smith, professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen. “But it presents just one plausible scenario and I expect even lower livestock numbers would show even greater benefits.”

He also noted: “[Cattle and sheep] do not magically make the nutrients – the nutrients are present in what the ruminants eat – they just concentrate them. These nutrients could also be made available for plant sources so the argument that we need ruminants to provide soil nutrients is not a given.”

Pritchard said there were already lots of UK farmers making the transition to agroecology. “So this analysis isn’t just a piece of technical modelling but is built on really grounded experience.”

In 2019, the National Farmers’ Union proposed a plan for farming to reach net zero emissions by 2040 without cutting beef production or converting substantial areas of farmland into forest. Instead, the NFU said 75% of agricultural emissions could be offset by growing fuel for power stations and capturing and burying the emissions.

A series of scientific studies have found that red meat produces the highest climate emissions from food and that consumption in rich nations must be slashed to tackle the climate crisis. Globally, 83% of farmland is used for livestock and their feed but animal products represent just 18% of all food calories. These researchers say eating plant-based diets and returning freed-up land to natural forest is the best available way to store large amounts of carbon.

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