- Soil Association
- Causes & Campaigns
- Transition to agroecology
- Transforming the way we farm
- Eating meat and dairy as part of a food system which helps tackle climate change and boosts biodiversity
What is the food system we need for climate and nature, and what role do farm animals have in that?
The Soil Association believes in a vision for the food system which can feed a growing population a healthy and sustainable diet. The food that we need can be produced by methods of farming that help reverse biodiversity decline and help reduce emissions from UK farming.
In the UK we have an opportunity to shift farming away from continued, unsustainable intensification towards a food system that;
- Encourages nature-friendly farming
- Produces as few emissions as possible
- Captures carbon in soils and trees
- Diversifies what we grow
- Provides a nutritious diet to help combat the UK health crisis
- Manages pests and disease naturally, without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers
- Regenerates depleted soils
- Provides the best animal welfare possible
- Pays the farmer a fair price
- Supports local supply chains
This kind of farming is agroecological farming. Organic is the best certifiable example of this type of farming, with a set of legal standards acting as a framework for farmers to work from.
Here is an extensive model of what the system might look like if the UK adopted agroecology.
How can we feed everyone an affordable, healthy, and accessible diet while also tackling the climate and nature crises?
In the world today there are multiple crises we face – these include the climate, nature and health crises. As a result, there is much discussion around what food and farming system we need to help us mitigate those threats. There is much debate and disagreement about which direction we should head in.
Each model presented makes assumptions about things that would need to change in order for the model to be successful – most often the case, the thing that needs to change, is our diets.
Our dietary choices drive the market for particular products. Farmers and retailers will often seek to meet this demand when choosing what to produce and sell.
In our own model, which maps a transition to agroecological farm systems like organic in the UK, we have had to make assumptions about how diets need to change to realise our vision. The most controversial area relating to dietary change is our consumption of meat and dairy products due to their impacts on the climate and nature crisis which we go into more detail on below.
What is the role of livestock in agroecological systems?
Agroecology might be understood as an approach to farming which learns from nature. An agroecological farming system seeks to minimise synthetic inputs, while building soil health and fertility by cultivating diversity across the farm system. Livestock, especially grazing and browsing animals, can play an important role in the system.
- As grazers in rotation systems where grass leys are used to build fertility naturally in the years food crops are not grown, ruminant animals can convert the grass to food whilst helping to build healthy, living soils, avoiding the need to use high-energy synthetic fertilisers or mechanical mowing.
- As managers of habitats, increasing biodiversity, regenerating soils and capturing carbon, livestock can enable low-impact food product on land which may not be suitable for cropping (e.g. unimproved upland)
- Animals with a single-chambered stomach such as pigs and chickens can consume by-products and waste streams, where these are available, helping to create ‘closed loop’ systems; their manures can also help cycle nutrients back into the land, avoiding use of synthetic fertilisers.
Whilst livestock can play an important role in agroecological farm systems like organic, much of the meat and dairy products on supermarket shelves in the UK, especially pig and chicken meat, comes from intensive systems. This is partly because the high, and growing, rates of consumption of these products in the UK fuels the intensification of livestock systems to meet demand.
These intensive systems are linked to a range of damaging side effects which include;
- Inefficient land use – large amounts of land are required to grow food for the animals, some of which could otherwise be used for other means, such as feeding humans directly. These crops are often intensively grown with high pesticide and artificial fertilizer use
- Imported land-use – many feed crops are imported, such as soya from the Americas, and are associated with damaging land conversion and agrochemical use overseas.
- High GHG emissions - ruminants expel methane gas which, in excess, is harmful for our environment. If managed badly, waste and slurry from intensive livestock systems can also result in a high amount of nitrous oxide being released into the atmosphere.
- High antibiotic use - intensive livestock systems are associated with higher antibiotic usage, relative to organic; animals in such systems are too often fed antibiotics to manage disease which could be avoided by improving husbandry and animal welfare.
- The economics of intensive production are problematic - environmental and animal welfare impacts are ‘costed out’ of the system, meaning intensive meat and dairy products can be artificially low cost in the supermarket
Eating meat and dairy
The vast majority of issues associated with meat and dairy products are a result of the systems which provide them and the levels they are being consumed at. The issue is not with meat and dairy per se, more the intensive livestock systems that most products come from.
If we want to transition to agroecology in the UK, diets would need to shift so that we consume more of the good stuff and less of the bad. This would mean much less pork and poultry, and a rebalancing of diets towards appropriate amounts of organic and pasture-fed ruminant meat and dairy, and ‘more and better’ plants. As outlined above there is a beneficial role for livestock in agroecological systems. The best thing an individual can do to support the system change we need in the UK, would be to cut out intensively farmed meat and dairy, and where possible, support agroecological systems like organic - purchasing veg, everyday staples, meat and dairy products from these systems. This will boost the market for these animals, helping farmers pay for their management and care on farm.