Organic and nature-friendly farming – beef and lamb can be sustainable

Organic and nature-friendly farming – beef and lamb can be sustainable

We face multiple threats. Extreme weather and the climate emergency are escalating, wildlife is disappearing, and diet-related ill-health is on the rise.

How should we farm and eat to resolve these crises?

Many solutions have been proposed – each new report seemingly contradicting the last. Meat is often the focus of the debate. Columnist George Monbiot, to name one recent example, argues that while the future of plant farming should be organic, we should stop farming ruminant animals.

Do cows and sheep have a place in a sustainable future? We believe they do.

Livestock can support nature

The Soil Association campaigns for agroecology – that’s nature-friendly farming within a fair society. 

While ‘conventional’ farming typically relies on fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and chemical sprays, agroecology minimises synthetic inputs and works instead with nature. As the most established example of agroecology, organic farming demonstrates that livestock can support nature and contribute to climate goals.

On organic farms, crops are often grown in rotation with a fertility building phase of grass and clover, which may be grazed by cows and sheep, and grasslands are used for extensive grazing.

This nurtures the living soil, and well-managed grazing in the right context is essential to protect and provide habitats for birds and insects. Organic farms come in all shapes and sizes but they are typically more biologically diverse, and evidence shows they have 50% more wildlife and 44% more soil carbon on average.

When carefully managed, organic manures also help nurture soil microbiology, improving soil structure and providing resilience against drought and flooding. While no farming system is perfect – and conventional and agroecological farmers are working hard to make improvements – the evidence suggests that livestock can be part of the solution.

Tackling the “agricultural sprawl” – farming vs nature

Not everyone agrees. The most common criticism levelled against organic is that while it might be better for nature, lower yields mean it takes up too much land, resulting in ‘agricultural sprawl’.

Accordingly, some have called for the immediate phase-out of ruminant livestock and the rewilding of grazing lands. Decisions regarding land use are fraught with complexity, but we believe ‘livestock vs. nature’ is a false dichotomy – we can have both.

Working with French think tank IDDRI, we found the lower yields characteristic of organic need not result in further ‘agricultural sprawl’, so long as our diets are healthier and more sustainable.

On the contrary, an organically farmed UK could feed everyone a healthy diet and still allow 1.8 million hectares of farmland to be committed to habitat restoration and ecological regeneration.

A further one million hectares of land overseas could also hypothetically be freed, thanks to the phase-out of feed imports.

Building on our analysis, Henry Dimbleby’s recent National Food Strategy argues that agroecology should be the primary mode of food production in England. He suggests that alongside agroecology, a small proportion of farmers should be supported to keep yields high on productive land while minimising synthetic inputs, while others should be supported to focus on nature.

If 9% of the ‘least productive’ farmland in England was managed primarily for nature and carbon, it would result in the loss of less than 1% of England’s food production – yet it would raise bird populations by 48% and store half the carbon needed by 2035 from the whole land system.

This would mean ceasing to graze some land and reducing grazing pressure whilst establishing more trees (which can be beneficial for grazing animals) elsewhere. Food production and nature recovery would be woven together in a mosaic, with ruminant animals threaded throughout.

Rewilding enthusiasts might not feel this goes far enough, and proposals to take any land out of production can be controversial. But with the right policy and farming incentives in place, and with farmers in the driving seat, this approach would make a big contribution towards resolving the climate and nature crises.

Diets must change to be healthy and sustainable

The way we eat should reflect how we use the land.

Modelling at a European level found that while organic farming can feed everyone, with massive benefits for climate and nature, per capita consumption of ruminant meat will need to shift by at least 30-50% for such a scenario to be viable.

To make a nature-friendly – and humane – farming system possible, we must also put a stop to the mega farms in the UK that house thousands of animals indoors together. This will require even greater reductions in the consumption of poultry and pork.

Not all grazing is good

While ruminant livestock have an important role, some criticisms of extensive grazing are legitimate. “Grass-fed” can refer to a range of approaches, some good, some more problematic.

Grass-fed livestock are associated with deforestation and habitat destruction overseas, and historic overgrazing and excess nitrogen application in the UK have contributed to biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Much of the damage was done during and after the Second World War when the intensification of farming saw millions of hectares of seminatural grasslands ploughed up for crops and most remaining permanent pasture ‘improved’ with synthetic fertilisers. This depleted much of our wildlife and led to the loss of 97% of England’s wildflower meadows. 

Although much lower levels of nitrogen are applied to grasslands today, the soil is often still too rich in nitrogen for most wild plants and fungi to survive.

This creates the luminous green pastures to which we have become accustomed. These pastures are productive, but they are wildlife deserts, with diverse species crowded out by the grasses that thrive.

There is potential for both organic and non-organic grazing systems to better support wildlife.

Restoration of meadows and other species-rich grasslands, plus a shift to native livestock breeds, coupled with agroforestry and the integration of trees and hedges into the farmed landscape, offer a huge opportunity. Whilst these are practices already quite common amongst organic farmers, we want to support more of them, and for more non-organic farmers to take up these practices too.

The best farming can still be better

Good intentions have historically resulted in damage, and even the ‘best’ farming systems today can be much better. Farmers of all stripes are pursuing these improvements and the Soil Association is working hard to support them.

A decade of field trials with our Innovative Farmers network has shown that both conventional and agroecological systems can be enhanced through collaboration and farmer-led research.

Our advocacy for ‘regenerative forestry’ is supporting farmers to lead the charge in building forest cover, restoring lost habitats and species, and integrating trees into the farmed landscape. Organic standards are constantly evolving – they are a floor, not a ceiling, and there is still much work to be done. We can always do better.

There are no simple solutions and complex trade-offs to negotiate. But organic and agroecological farming offer hope, showing that a nature-friendly future is possible.

Given the urgency of the climate, nature and health crises we’re facing, we don’t have time to make the perfect the enemy of the good – organic and agroecological farming are delivering benefits for people and planet today and should be supported as a blue-print for sustainable farming systems.

With bold (and realistic) policies, farmers can be empowered to address the crises confronting us. We believe ruminant livestock can be part of a regenerative future.