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Two fifths of UK arable land used to grow crops for animals, not people – WWF

An agricultural field in Hampshire (Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK/PA)
An agricultural field in Hampshire (Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK/PA)

Swathes of the UK’s agricultural land are used to grow cereal crops to feed farm animals instead of people in an “inherently inefficient” process, wildlife charity WWF said.

The conservation organisation is calling for a transformation of the UK’s food system, which it says currently fuels climate change and destruction of the natural world, to make it healthier, greener and more secure.

A report from WWF said 40% of productive arable land in the UK – some two million hectares – was being used to grow wheat and barley to feed farm animals.

Half the country’s wheat harvest goes to feeding livestock, mostly chickens and pigs, and would be enough to produce nearly 11 billion loaves of bread, it said.

In addition, the UK imports large quantities of soy to feed pigs and poultry, relying on 850,000 hectares of land abroad to grow the crops, which contributes to the destruction of habitats such as Brazil’s Cerrado, home to jaguars, giant anteaters and armadillos.

Barley crop in Norfolk, UK (Joseph Gray/WWF-UK/PA)
The WWF said 40% of productive arable land in the UK is used to grow crops like this field of barley in Norfolk (Joseph Gray/WWF-UK/PA)

Dairy, egg and meat products provide only a third of the calories consumed in the UK and just under half the population’s intake of protein, despite livestock, grazing land and crops for animal feed taking up 85% of the UK’s farmland, WWF said.

The report says replacing animal feeds such as soy and cereal with alternatives including food waste and innovative ingredients such as insects could free up land to grow food for people, which is more efficient, and create space for nature.

Slower-growing poultry can even be incorporated in a pasture-based system, where up to a quarter of their food is replaced by foraged vegetation, nuts, berries, insects and slugs.

This approach would require a reduction in overall numbers of livestock in the UK, it acknowledges, but said UK cows and sheep, which are largely fed on grazing pastures, could be a key part of a wildlife-friendly farming system.

Mist shrouded landscape scene showing the contrast between heavily grazed land (at left) and ground left more natural, in Yorkshire (Andrew Parkinson/WWF-UK/PA)
The contrast between heavily grazed land and ground left more natural, in Yorkshire (Andrew Parkinson/WWF-UK/PA)

The charity said that livestock can play an important role in fertilising the soil, through manure, and – with protections for nature – can make use of grazing land where it is not possible to grow crops at scale.

WWF also said that in the UK, people currently consume more calories, protein and animal source foods than recommended, and experts say more than half of our protein should come from come from plant-based sources.

The report recommends a focus on “less but better” meat that supports production which values nature, animal welfare and farmer livelihoods, and highlights the need to look at all the environmental impacts of different livestock, not just carbon emissions.

It calls for support for innovation, such as rearing insects and seaweed feed, and for a review of how food waste could safely be a source of low environmental impact animal feed.

Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “With food prices soaring, we can’t afford to stay locked into a food system that’s not fit for purpose.

Cattle, mob grazing in long wildflower grassland
A cow grazing in long wildflower grassland (Joseph Gray/WWF-UK/PA)

“Far too much of the food we eat is produced in ways that are fuelling the climate crisis and driving catastrophic nature loss, yet failing to deliver affordable, healthy food for all.

“To make our food system truly shock-resistant we need to accelerate a shift to sustainable production, including rethinking the way we are using huge quantities of the UK’s most productive land to grow food for livestock instead of people.

“UK governments can futureproof our food and bring huge benefits for nature and climate at the same time by ramping up support for farmers to transform our landscapes, making space for nature in farms and forests, fields and fens,” she urged.

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