Foodservice Footprint seed-2 Food tech can free up land and protect nature: report Out of Home News Analysis

Food tech can free up land and protect nature: report

Cultured meat and proteins made through precision fermentation could bring a huge land dividend if policies support them. By David Burrows

Shifting diets towards alternative proteins like cultured chicken and animal-free cheese would create an unprecedented land dividend for Europe, avoiding difficult trade-offs between food self-sufficiency, carbon neutrality, biodiversity protection and the preservation of rural livelihoods. 

A new analysis by Green Alliance, a think tank, shows the space created by more sustainable protein sources would allow British farmers to grow much more of the produce we currently import, increasing the UK’s self-sufficiency by a third.

At the same time, farms would have the space to adapt their businesses to restore nature and mitigate climate change. This would enable the UK to meet its climate and biodiversity restoration targets.

“The government could turn our looming land crunch into an enormous land dividend, but it must seize the opportunity to support our sustainable proteins industry in the face of international competition,” said Lydia Collas, senior policy analyst at Green Alliance. “Our analysis shows that with the right policy support, we’d use more land in the UK to grow food eaten here – as much as 64%, up from 47% today,” she added. 

With the right policy support the UK would find space to more than double coverage of semi-natural habitat and farm 39% of land organically by 2050, according to the report. Government payments to farmers for these environmental services could also offer them a reliable income source as part of a more diversified business model. The current schemes have proved controversial, sparking farmer protests.

The Green Alliance analysis comes as the UK Government holds its second farm to form summit (May 14th). This year’s summit, hosted by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is taking place against a backdrop of challenges for farmers, from an extremely wet winter leading to harvests being hit, to Brexit trading delays and ongoing high input costs.

Better meat

Talking about what farmers produce and what people eat remains taboo for politicians, though. Even with very limited support, alternatives made by precision fermentation or cultured meats could displace a sixth of European meat and dairy consumption by 2050, argued Green Alliance. 

Without any support, these technologies are doomed to fail. With significant supportive policy the picture changes. Precision fermentation products could readily replace milk and eggs, and in combination with cellular agriculture could produce animal fats, enzymes and natural flavours that will make plant-based products “taste much more like animal products”. 

Alternative proteins could in fact account for over two thirds of meat and dairy sales by 2050. Most processed meat and dairy could be displaced, along with some complex cuts of meat. With supportive policy, traditional meat and dairy production could continue, but only serving higher value, lower volume, premium markets. This would support the ‘less and better’ meat approach supported by academics and campaigners including WWF.

Reducing demand for meat and dairy by two thirds would mean 44% of the farmland in the ten European countries studied would no longer be needed for growing feed and grazing animals. Overseas land use would fall even further, by 57%, releasing an area equivalent to Spain from producing the food that Europe imports. 

The UK has large areas of farmed land and extensively grazed outdoor beef and lamb sectors, so is one of the countries that could enjoy the greatest land dividend from such a shift. 

Green Alliance also conducted a sensitivity analysis in which meat and dairy consumption was only displaced by unprocessed plants rather than alternative proteins. “We found no significant difference between the land use footprints of alternative proteins and unprocessed plant-based foods, even when the energy infrastructure needed for alternative proteins is included,” the think tank said.

Worst of the weather
The food summit this week, which included representatives from throughout the supply chain, was held at a time when farmer confidence has reached its lowest level since records began in 2010. Producer intentions have plummeted as a result, with all farming sectors expecting to decrease production over the next year, said the NFU.

The weather has had a major impact. This winter has been one of the wettest on record in the UK, while the Met Office said that the 1,695.9mm of rain that fell from October 2022 to March 2024 was the highest amount for any 18-month period in England.

The NFU survey was undertaken in November and December 2023 and since then farmers have been battling relentless, heavy rain throughout January, February, March and much of April. Were the survey undertaken again today, the results would be “even worse”, the NFU said.

“[…] in our ‘high innovation’ scenario for alternative proteins, more land based carbon storage options, like trees and peat, could reduce the demand for engineered removals substantially,” Collas of Green Alliance wrote in an accompanying blog. “Domestic farms could play an even greater role in feeding their populations at the same time as diversifying into other paying activities, like carbon sequestration and nature restoration. This could bring new and resilient income streams to their farming business that aren’t subject to weather fluctuations,” she added.  

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