UK Farming and Global Food Security
A change for the better is needed
Today, 1.02 billion people worldwide are undernourished. 1 The global human population is set to increase from 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050,2 with the majority of the increase in developing countries. At the same time, demand for fresh water and agricultural land is rising and global trends towards unsustainable Western meat and dairy-based diets are increasing. The effects of climate change are also threatening food production in some already vulnerable areas of the world.3 Clearly changes need to be made in order to ensure future global food security and provide for those who even now are not being fed.
Vegan diets are part of the solution
Continued consumption of animal products in rich countries and the increasing trend towards it in other countries is environmentally unsustainable. If the entire world’s population lived as we do in the UK, we would need three planets the size of Earth to sustain ourselves.4 A vegan, plant-based diet can be a sustainable source of food for all for the future, even with a growing global population. This is because vegan diets:
- require on average one third of the water and land needed for meat-based diets, in the UK context;5
- require fewer crops to be grown overall due to bypassing the inefficient conversion of crops into animal products;
- result in lower climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions than the production of meat-based diets;
- avoid degradation of once fertile land and deforestation which can be caused by overgrazing;
- do not rely on animals which are likely to become extinct through human exploitation as a food source, as is the case with much sealife.
The increasing demand for water, in addition to rising water pollution, is a serious cause for concern in terms of food security, as well as human health. The FAO predicts that “by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions”.6 Although Northern Europe and North America are expected to benefit from increased rainfall due to climate change, water shortages are expected to hit South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia hardest, countries already more vulnerable to the effects of floods and droughts.3
Large amounts of land are needed for livestock, both for growing feed crops for animals and for grazing. Some 70% of the world's agricultural land and 30% of the world's surface land area is currently used for livestock farming and one-third of all arable land is used for feed growing.7 Grazing often leads to land degradation. About 70% of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock.7 Cattle are responsible for around 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon region.8
Over one third of the world’s cereals are currently used as animal feed, a figure which is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2050.9 The conversion of crops into meat and other animal products is a highly inefficient way of producing food. The United Nations Environment Programme recently calculated that the calories currently lost by feeding grain to livestock represents the annual calorie needs of more than 3.5 billion people.10 Soy accounts for 40% of all proteins used for animal feed in the UK (and 65% in the EU). 11 The UK livestock industry is currently dependent on soya imports from Brazil and Argentina. These countries provide around 90% of UK soya imports, which in 2007/08 totalled 3 million tonnes. If the supply of soy from these two countries were restricted, the UK’s ability to feed its farmed animals would be seriously compromised.12
Greenhouse gas emissions
The scientific consensus is that climate change is contributed to by greenhouse gases produced by human activity. This now poses a threat to food security, hitting developing countries hardest.Droughts, floods and extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change are increasingly leading to food insecurity in developing countries.3 UK farmers are also starting to notice the effects of climate change.13 The 2006 UN report ‘Livestock’s long shadow’7 found that globally the livestock industry was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a higher figure than all transport (estimated at 13.5%).14 Deforestation for cattle grazing and growing animal feed is also a major concern in terms of greenhouse gases. The cattle sector in Brazil is responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation.8 If destroyed, it is estimated that the Amazon would release around fifty times the annual (2009) greenhouse gas emissions of the US. 8
Vegan diets for all
In addition to being environmentally sustainable, a well-planned plant-based diet is appropriate at all stages of life, is nutritionally sound15 and helps meet many Government healthy eating recommendations.16
Stock-free farming in the UK – the benefits
Stock-free farming offers many benefits to farmers and to the population as a whole, including
consumers, the Government and taxpayers.
Benefits for farmers
Stock-free farms can be largely or entirely self-sufficient. Farmers avoid the expense of buying in manure and reliance on the livestock industry to produce it. Stock-free organic farms also avoid the cost of chemical fertilisers.17 They are unaffected by fluctuating costs of animal feed and can function well without subsidies.Stock-free farms avoid the worry of animal diseases such as BSE, bluetongue and foot-and-mouth, all of which have been seen in the UK in recent years. Stock-free farming offers an alternative to the tight margins and low farmer confidence currently placing many dairy farmers in a precarious situation.18 In a survey of dairy farmers in South East England carried out by the NFU,19 40% were considering quitting or had already left dairy farming due to the costs of complying with new Nitrate Vulnerable Zones rules. The survey also found that the majority of respondents would give their land over to arable production if they ceased milking.
Benefits to the population
Plant-based diets would help the UK population to meet current Government dietary recommendations such as eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day (only 14% of the population currently achieve this20), eating plenty of starchy foods and consuming less saturated fat.15 The House of Commons Health Select Committee estimated that the cost of obesity and overweight for England in 2002 was nearly £7 billion. 21 The Department of Health estimates that £19.9 billion would be saved each year if UK diets matched the national nutritional guidelines. 22
How much plant-based food can we produce?
DEFRA estimates that in terms of calorific requirements, UK agricultural land could produce more than enough food from arable production for the entire population. 23 The area currently being used for crops in the UK is 4.7 million hectares. 24 It is estimated that only three million hectares would be required to feed the UK population on a vegan diet, 25 therefore it is very likely that sufficient quantities of suitable land would be available for arable use without having to plough pasture. UK food self sufficiency is currently 60.3% overall and 72.9% for indigenous type foods. 23 Currently 62% of vegetables and 9% of fruit consumed in the UK are UK-grown.26 In 2007 the UK had a trade deficit in fruit and vegetables of £5.8 billion. 27
Advantages of plant-based diets to food security
Producing vegan diets requires comparatively low amounts of land and water. The Vegan Society (using figures from peer reviewed studies) estimates that a balanced vegan diet requires one third of the water and land used for a typical meat-based diet.5 Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced with careful thought to the foods that farmers produce. A 2008 study commissioned by Natural England28 of greenhouse gas emissions from UK farms discovered that dairy farms had the highest CO2 equivalent emissions at 10 tonnes per hectare and cereal farms had the lowest at 2-4 tonnes per hectare.
Stock-free farming in the UK – the practicalities
Stock-free farms do not use any animal inputs but can be organic or non-organic. The non-organic farms use chemical fertilisers and a number of successful organic stock-free farms already operate in the UK. The organic techniques they use for tasks which normally involve the use of animal inputs may be unfamiliar to many farmers. Farmers may need training and Government support to convert to stock-free farming. There will be a trade off between the energy required to produce chemical fertilisers and the land required to produce green manures.
Maintaining soil fertility without animal manure or chemical fertilisers involves:
- Crop rotation, planting the crops which require most soil fertility soonest after fallow years.
- The use of green manure, which also protects soil from losing nutrients during winter as the soil is not bare.
- The optional use of compost and plant-derived liquid feeds.
Green manure techniques:
- Planting nitrogen fixing plants such as clover in fallow years (also good for breaking up dense soil)
- Undersowing green manure plants beneath crops
- Spreading green manure onto the soil over winter
Reducing crop damage without the use of pesticides:
- Encouraging predators which feed on crop-eating animals by creating hedgerows for them to live in.
- Undersowing can distract cabbage white butterflies and discourage them from landing to lay their eggs on crops.16
A stock-free landscape
Many people may find it difficult to envisage a countryside other than the existing, familiar landscape shaped by current farming practices. However, the UK landscape is largely shaped by human activity.The current landscape we are all familiar with is just one way in which it can be shaped.
"But what about the land where only animals can graze - not all land can be used for growing crops.”
Land that is less suited to growing arable crops can be used to grow annual,16 shrub and tree29 crops for food, fuel, fibre, construction materials and other uses with stock-free farming methods. For example, short-rotation coppice willow can be grown on marginal land to produce biomass and initial studies suggest that this benefits butterfly and bird populations. 30 The options for land use are not limited to a choice between either grazing or industrial arable. Planted forests could play an important role in supplying biomass for renewable energy and as a carbon sink, reducing the UK’s net carbon emissions. 31
"But what would happen to the landscape - would it just run wild with no grazing to keep it in order?"
As well as being used for various types of stock-free farming or growing, land which is currently used for grazing could be used for leisure or conservation purposes, including encouraging populations of native wild species of plants and animals. Even areas such as hillsides currently used for sheep grazing would not become idle - the landscape would naturally progress into climax woodland. Most upland livestock farms would not be economically viable without subsidies. Instead of continuing this uneconomic practice, Land Managers could be employed to manage the uplands as a carbon sink, for recreational use and to provide wildlife habitats. Whatever the decision, the countryside would not be ‘left derelict’.
Land-use change of freed-up grazing land has great potential to provide habitats for different species and thus promote biodiversity. Management practices in European forests increasingly emphasise encouraging biodiversity. 30 Stock-free farming can encourage biodiversity, for example by incorporating hedgerows and long grass which is rarely cut back, to provide a habitat for various species.16
Alternative visions of food security
If we do not move towards plant-based diets – what are the alternatives?
Reliance on aquaculture and intensively-farmed poultry
Aquaculture, widely promoted as a ‘solution’ to over-fishing, is still emptying the oceans of its sealife. Large quantities of wild-caught ‘prey’ fish are needed to feed carnivorous fish. More than three tonnes of wild-caught fish are needed to produce one tonne of farmed salmon and the conversion ratio for farmed halibut and cod is around 5:1. 32 In 2006, aquaculture consumed 56% of world fishmeal supplies and 87% of fish oil.33 Herbivorous fish such as tilapia are often considered to be the most ‘efficient meat producers’ of all animals. Even so, their feed conversion ratio is often more than 2.0. 34 Fishmeal and non-fish meatmeal is often included in their feed. 35 Control of reproduction is a major issue in tilapia farming. Methods include maintaining very high stocking densities (compromising the animals’ welfare) and use of hormones to create all-male stocks,33 which could be considered unacceptable by UK consumers.
Intensive poultry farming currently uses large amounts of grain and soya. Poultry farming accounts for over half the soya currently used in the UK livestock industry11, most of which is imported from South America. Poultry farming currently requires around 22kg of soya per person to produce one person’s average annual intake of chicken meat. 11 This use of soya is likely to rise if the population were even more reliant on poultry meat as a food source. In addition, an increase in intensively farmed poultry adds to the risk of bird flu. Reliance on intensively-farmed poultry is unlikely to be an acceptable course of action to British consumers. There is an increasing consumer awareness of animal welfare issues and preference for buying higher-welfare chicken. For instance, 38% of consumers reported switching from buying intensively-produced to free-range chicken after Channel Four’s 2008 Big Food Fight programmes on the subject. 36 Some 69% of people say they are interested in products which are produced taking animal welfare into consideration. 37
Couldn’t we have consumption of smaller quantities of free-range, organic meat?
Whatever the methods used, eating crops ‘second hand’ via animals is always less efficient than using the crops direct and will require a greater overall input of crops. Pollution issues from human farming of animals such as greenhouse gas emissions would still exist.There would still need to be an emphasis on plant-based diets in order for any reduction in meat consumption to take place. Encouraging meat consumption as desirable is unlikely to bring about the necessary change in eating habits needed for a sustainable future.
The Earth's capacity to feed itself is being increasingly strained by a growing global population. There is not enough land and water to feed the world’s population on the current unsustainable meat and dairy-based diets of the rich nations. The livestock sector is one of the top three contributors to the global greenhouse gas emissions which already threaten global food security through the effects of climate change.7 Stock-free farming produces far less pollution and greenhouse gases than livestock farming. The average vegan diet requires much less water, land and crops than the average meat-based diet. Stock-free farming and vegan diets offer a real solution to overcoming world hunger, providing future global food security and ensuring social, economic and environmental sustainability.
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