Campaigners are calling for a new approach to how animals are fed after a new report claimed that 40% of the UK’s most productive agricultural land is used to grow food for farm animals instead of people.
WWF called for a rethink of what it called an “inherently inefficient” approach to feeding farm animals, which sees half of the UK's wheat harvest each year – equivalent to 11 billion loaves of bread – being used to feed livestock, primarily chickens and pigs.
It said the process was fuelling climate change and driving nature's decline in the UK and overseas.
The report is the latest in the charity’s ‘future of feed’ series. It highlighted that dairy and meat products provide only 32% of calories consumed in the UK and less than half (48%) of protein, despite livestock and their feed making up 85% of the UK’s total land use for agriculture.
WWF’s analysis found that wheat and barley grown to feed farmed animals in the UK uses 2 million hectares of land, representing 40% of the UK’s arable land area.
Oats grown to feed livestock each year make up a third of the UK’s annual oat harvest and would be enough to produce nearly 6 billion bowls of porridge.
The report also noted how the UK imports large quantities of soy to feed pigs and poultry, fuelling the destruction of precious habitats overseas like the Brazilian Cerrado.
Farmers responded by suggesting the report ignores the fact that a lot of food grown for human consumption in the UK is considered too low grade by buyers, hence animal feed provides an alternative market.
WWF said replacing animal feeds like soy and cereal with alternatives like grass, by-products from the food supply chain, and innovative feed ingredients such as insect meal, would free up land to grow food for people, including high value crops like fruits, vegetables and nuts.
It said that although this approach would necessitate a reduction in overall numbers of livestock in the UK, with the right incentives in place UK beef and lamb, which are largely pasture fed, could be the backbone of a nature-friendly, regenerative approach to farming.
“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,” said Kate Norgrove, executive director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF.
The report also warned that focusing purely on the carbon footprint of food production risks fuelling agricultural intensification and masking other negative environmental impacts, like pollution from slurry or land conversion for feed production in chicken farming, which can have a low carbon footprint in comparison with pasture-fed beef.