Changes to livestock farming are likely to free up land for natural capital provision including biodiversity

There can be no doubt that the agricultural sector is likely to experience a major impact on its activities in the coming decade. Work by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has identified the urgent need to refocus how we use land, how we farm, that we need far greater emphasis on agroecological approaches to farming, delivering sustainable food systems, and a rebalancing of diets away from meat.

These changes are happening now, driven by the market, upcoming trade arrangements, and most importantly, changes in the behaviour of consumers. They will make a transformational change to what the countryside in the UK looks like. Agricultural innovation will also impact on farming and many damaging practices will be confined to history. If these system changes work, as I hope they will, we should see major opportunities to lock up carbon, create new wildlife habitat, therefore, restoring nature, and to transform the land to places of beauty once again.

The most recent contribution to the debate is a report by the international think-tank RethinkX, published in September 2019 (https://www.rethinkx.com/press-release/2019/9/16/new-report-major-disruption-in-food-and-agriculture-in-next-decade.

It speculates that advances in precision biology and laboratory-produced proteins will enable an entirely new model of food production (termed Food-as-Software) that will have profound implications for the agriculture industry and for the wider economy, society, and the environment.

Could all meat eventually be produced without the need for animal agriculture?
Image: World Economic Forum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

A summary of its findings are presented below :

  • By 2030, demand for products from cows will have fallen by 70%, and by 2035 up to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory. There will be enormous destruction of value for those involved in rearing animals and processing them, and for all the industries that support and supply the livestock sector. At the same time, there will be huge opportunities for the producers of modern foods and materials.
  • The current industrialized, animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model, foods being engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world. This could result in a far more distributed, localized food-production system that is more stable and resilient than the one it replaces, shielded from volume and price volatility due to the vagaries of seasonality, weather, drought, disease and other natural, economic, and political factors.
  • By 2035, about 60% of the land currently being used for livestock and feed production will be freed for other uses.
  • Environmental benefits will be profound, with net greenhouse gas emissions from the sector falling substantially.

No doubt the devil will be in the detail but if this does come to fruition there would be substantial value in co-creating new uses of the land or, more specifically, getting land back to a place where wildlife is once again super-abundant, where soils are protected, where carbon is locked up in vegetation and soils, and where landscape quality is hugely improved. The reductions in the externality damage that modern farming practices have inflicted on the countryside will be welcome. Reductions in pesticide and artificial fertiliser use alone ought to lead to better quality food; some work is demonstrating that cocktails of residue pesticides in food have contributed to the obesity epidemic by affecting hormones that control satiation. Many of the pesticides used are endocrine disruptors, so we shouldn’t perhaps be surprised at the link.

However, does this all sound too good to be true? I can’t tell at the moment but disruption in the food producing systems that mean we achieve far greater protection and restoration of our environment has to be better than disrupting our health. We shall see.

Less space for agriculture would mean more space for nature in the UK

Of course, there will be losers – the need for seed producers (we won’t need anything like as much arable cropping if livestock production is replaced), agricultural machinery businesses and agrochemical conglomerates, who have had a major controlling influence in the farming sector, will almost certainly decline if these predictions come to fruition.

The speed of this transformation will be compelling if it were to take place as predicted and if it can deliver sufficient calories to feed the human population, which I’m told it can. So if, or when, this happens we need financial instruments to provide investment into nature recovery. The existing landowning and farming sector ought to be keen to provide land management interventions that people want and for which society will pay.

Biodiversity net gain from development and corporate natural capital accounting (including natural capital disclosure) which make corporates investable because of their own investments in nature, should provide the appropriate funding. What is needed very soon is a mandate from Government that corporates will need to report on their impacts on natural capital through their supply chains. This will provide the disruption to the ‘business as usual’ model and the incentive that will be needed to provide the finance for a different and more sustainable way of using our land.

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