How replacing animal farming with crops could tackle climate change

A new report by Harvard University suggests some land should be converted back to forest, while more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and pulses should take over from livestock.

12 April 2019
image credit: Getty Images

The UK would be able to sustain itself with enough food and help meet the Paris Agreement by converting land used for animal agriculture to new crops, according to research from Harvard University.

Returning pasture land back to forest and converting the areas used for growing animal feed to health-promoting crops for human consumption could help tackle the global climate crisis, while still providing enough protein for the British population, found the report.

Currently, almost half of all land in the UK is used for farming animals, but it provides very little nutrition compared to the resources used, said Dr Helen Harwatt, the British lead author from Harvard. 

Instead, beans and other pulses would be efficient crops to cultivate in Britain as they have nutritional and environmental benefits. These could be grown in place of animal feed, in addition to a range of fruit and vegetables, she suggested.

“It’s essential for the UK to have a Paris-compliant food system and right now it’s far from that.

Our research shows for the first time that it’s possible – and could deliver multiple benefits to the UK population, including more provisions of healthy food and more forest areas for recreation,” she commented. “The new habitats would also create opportunities to tackle the wildlife crisis by reintroducing wildlife, such as beavers, turtle doves and lynx, which is also great news for a nation of animal lovers.”

Dr Harwatt added that because the UK imports 90% of its fruit and vegetables, it is in an increasingly precarious position in light of climate change impacts and shifts in international trade, especially as Brexit looms large.

Radical action required

Growing forest was a natural climate solution with many benefits, added co-author Dr Matthew Hayek.

“Forests not only pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also provide a range of co-benefits such as water filtration, flood defence and greater soil carbon capture – which will all become even more important as the impacts of climate change increase,” he explained.

However, Dr Hayek acknowledged the need to protect economic livelihoods if any large-scale land use changes were implemented.

The UK is trailing far behind its legally binding commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, found the report, and even further reductions would be required to align with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.

In fact, if UK emissions do not decrease from current levels, they will be consistent with temperatures beyond 1.5°C of warming in just 12 years’ time. Radical action, far beyond what currently planned, is required to reduce emissions steeply and rapidly, claimed the researchers.

Forest and food-focused options

The report proposes two scenarios to get on top of climate change. The first maximises CO2 removal by returning pasture land and cropland used to grow animal feed back to forest, which cleanses the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as 12 years of the UK’s current emissions.

The second scenario trades off some of the CO2 removal and keeps croplands in production, to allow for an increased and diversified supply of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and pulses to the UK population. At present, 91% of all cropland is used to grow only seven crops, most of which are used for animal feed. This option removes CO2 equal to nine years of the UK’s current emissions. It would also meet consumer demands for more plant-based foods and address the under-consumption of the five-a-day recommendation, the report said.

Under both scenarios, the UK would be able to provide all its calorie and protein needs, added the report.

Both Dr Harwatt and Dr Hayek urged the government to act and said the need to tackle temperature rise requires the implementation of bold policy measures.

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