Readers reply: how big would Britain have to be for all its meat, milk and eggs to be ethically farmed?
How big would Britain have to be for all the meat, milk and eggs we consume to be ethically farmed and free range?
Michael Ryan, Bodelwyddan
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The UK is 242,000 sq km, which is 2.4m hectares (5.8m acres). For 67 million people that is 0.036 hectares each. We have produced more food than is required for a family on 3 hectares, but that amount of land should feed 100 people. We produced grass-fed beef and sheep but bought hay, selling beef and lamb to pay for it. If we had produced our own hay we would have produced enough beef/lamb for 10 people and probably enough milk. By that calculation, the UK would need to reduce its population by 90%. If we had been strict vegetarians, most of the land would be abandoned as too steep for vegetables. It could have been planted with trees. Simon Spencer
We need to change the way we produce food in order to produce it ethically. Older houses still have the obligatory fruit trees in the garden, some old houses have a cellar for root vegetables or larders. So, we would need food-producing houses, neighbourhoods and community gardens. There are community gardens, hospital gardens and school gardens; all these would want to participate in the “ethical effort”. I have even heard of a school in Guildford keeping chickens for educational purposes.
If we can have chickens, bees and fruit trees in the neighbourhood and in the communities, add some community gardens and home gardens to produce British favourites, then the cities are also more resilient for the future and pressure on farming is reduced.
There is a community called Permablitz that will make a food garden in your back garden free of charge, in exchange for food. They helped us create the Northwick Park community garden in London. Sonja Breuer
Good luck to whomsoever attempts to put a figure on this. One report has stated that we could, theoretically, farm 100% pastured beef in the UK with only a small reduction in consumption, but only if we reduced consumption of pork, lamb, chicken, eggs and dairy by about 50% and planted a whole heap of trees, too. However, at current consumption levels, the land footprint required would be vast. Then factor in, for example, that free-range chickens tend to be slower growing and thus consume more by way of dry feedstuffs, giving them a bigger carbon footprint than broilers … it’s a rabbit hole. Herofthewords
The UK produces only 64% of the food it consumes and even this is an overestimate because of imported feed. Given that the question cannot have a single answer because of the highly normative notion of what is “ethical” (no suffering? No greenhouse gas emissions? No exploitative trade relations?), I would put aside ethics and rather think of embodied land as the equivalent of free range in terms of resource usage, and include our veg and grain requirements. Then a very rough estimate would be about a doubling of current land under agriculture so about 150% of the UK’s land mass. I would note it is possible to relatively accurately assess this through environmental extended input-output analysis/material footprinting. See for example here. littlepump
According to this study, the UK produces approximately 4m tonnes of meat, 791,000 tonnes of eggs, and 15m tonnes of milk a year. We each consume on average 80kg of meat, 0.57kg of eggs and 223kg of milk a year. Extrapolating for a population of 68 million, we need 5.7m tonnes of meat, 38,000 tonnes of eggs, and 15m tonnes of milk. So we produce 71% of our meat needs, much more of our egg needs, and about 70% of our milk. Therefore, if the country were about 40% larger (assuming same usage of land and many other variables), we could hit our milk need and would be over-producing meat and eggs … andynm
According to House of Commons Library research, the broader category of “dairy” in recent years has a small export surplus in volume for the UK. That does include net import of cheese and butter, net export of milk and cream. What it means practically is that the UK already houses enough cows to supply 100% of the milk it consumes in all forms. There are imports of feed, of course, which is a separate question. leadballoon
You can’t ethically breed animals into existence for your consumption. That just doesn’t make sense. Creating a sentient being is a dubious enough prospect in itself but doing it just because you want to eat it or its secretions can never be ethical. Not if you’re seriously considering the animal’s perspective and that is required for the question of ethics. JohnRebelistic
It is a bit like asking how we can kill all the people over 60 in a painless manner. Perfectly acceptable question, but it assumes you left your principles behind when you came in. The reality is that meat and dairy farming are never going to be ethical, green or acceptable. There is no way to do it. Giving up most meat and dairy consumption is the only answer, not greenwashing an ungreen system. hooopla
There is far more to it than this, of course. Many give up meat and dairy and are happy that their footprint no longer includes the slaughter of animals, not realising that the remainder of their diet is killing forest elephants and orangutans, among many others. Veganism as an ideal originated as a peace movement, a reaction to the violence of two world wars; a revolutionary new way of life that steered away from the killing and exploitation of all animals (humans included). It has been hijacked by the consumerist corporates as another way to earn billions. Their (eventual) takeover of the food industry will probably be a monster to the ethical beginnings of a collectivist movement, conveniently forgetting the vast environmental damage required to feed 8 billion people. woodworm20
“Ethically” means without using imported feedstuffs, and “free range” meaning without adding animal feed to increase the protein content of the diet to enable cows, for instance, to produce the monstrous quantity of milk that the market demands. But ethically could also be taken to mean not using the overbred farm animals whose offspring are taken away from them and whose lives are unhealthy and who are slaughtered as soon as their productivity decreases. From that point of view, I don’t think ethical farming exists. In fact, Britain’s farms at present produce enough protein to feed its human population, but most of it is fed to farm animals rather than humans. TonyChinnery
Ethical? Are you kidding? So, are all the dairy cows going to be left to suckle their young until weaned and we will just hand-milk what the calf doesn’t drink? And if you’re talking ethics then breeding, rearing and killing any animals for their meat is totally out, and please don’t talk about humane slaughter; if something is humane then you wouldn’t mind it happening to you or a close family member. And egg production? To be in any way ethical every hen would have free access to a cockerel and the only eggs we could take would be the ones that weren’t fertilised and didn’t hatch. So to answer your question, if you introduce ethics into the equation of food production then Britain is quite big enough as it is. ismeee
You say that as if hens enjoy their time with cockerels. Having owned both, the cockerels spent a good amount of time chasing and forcibly impregnating hens who weren’t broody and had no interest in them, and the rest of the time being aggressive towards each other. I think at this point, a lot of farm animals have been selectively bred for so long they do not act at all like wild animals, eg chickens not being broody over most of the eggs they lay, even when fertilised. LeperPig
My part of rural France is home to limousin cattle. Our cow neighbours are delightful. They give birth to their babies in the barn next door. When they go out to graze, in various huge meadows, Dad is with them. He is a fit, relaxed beast who is often found surrounded by his children as the cows graze. He is not so overweight he faints in the heat (The Royal Show) and is not just a supplier of semen straws. Ethical treatment aside, these cows live under the sky with plenty of grass. They seem content. One of our local farmers plays them classical music because he believes it relaxes them. Yes, we eat them, but they live appropriate lives to grazing animal first. Aurore87
It’s the wrong question. The question should be: how should our diets change to allow us as a country eat what can be grown or raised here? Then we have control and can truly have full account of its climate cost. If we can then identify gaps in what we need for a healthy diet, we should consider imports. Looking at our diets, and the potential to encourage wildlife across the world, it would mean no chocolate, coffee or most tea, no rice, Brazil nuts or peanuts, as a few examples. All of those exploit and have a climate and destructive effect on wildlife. We can grow maize and soya, for food. Let’s have a full reset on diets, not pseudo science. And let’s have an honest discussion on how our consumption affects wildlife and climate across the world. systems4food
It depends on what is regarded as ethical, of course. If we are talking about good health and mental wellbeing of animals, say cows, space alone is not the holy grail of ethics. Cows’ mental wellbeing can be stimulated with:
Warm indoor space on cold days.
Outdoor space with shade on warm days. Cows are not that different from humans in regards to comfortable temperatures.
Enough room to sit indoors and the ability to gather with their four to seven closest cow “friends”. Yes, cows make friends and they are most relaxed within each other’s company.
A herd no larger than 70-80 (this is about the maximum of individuals that a cow can recognise and be at ease with). With more cows it is advisable to split the herds.
Cleaning facilities (especially for the hoofs), clean floors.
Massage and brushing machines.
A fine diet of grass, clovers and brewer’s grains, avoid corn and other food with high amounts of starch/sugar.
This would exclude mega US-style farms, but a normal European farmer with small herds is perfectly capable of providing those needs with added benefit of higher yields and higher prices for their diary. Koeien
It might be ethical but falls down on carbon output. Low input/low output farms are worse than high-output herds because cows basically all eat about same whether high/low. Most carbon savings are in output produced for every kg food eaten. acornishfarmer
I don’t know how it works out on a national scale, but my factory farm project in 1972 found it takes 1.8 times the land to run a chicken factory compared to free farming them. We lost out to the financial boys, because of the way grants were paid. At the same time we found no difference in food quality between organic and intensive, but a huge difference in preserving soil health. It is highly likely now that, having depleted the soil, organic grown is richer in nutrients. All intensive farming, whether animal or vegetable, does a huge amount of damage, disrupting the ecological cycle and reducing CO2 absorption overall. Changing the practice would have more impact than cutting emissions. Tedami7
The question is based on the premise that factory farming is more efficient than other forms of farming, which unfortunately tends to be true. Factory-farmed animals tend to have more concentrated feed, move less, are bred to grow faster, and are slaughtered younger – for those reasons, factory-farmed animal products generally have a lower environmental footprint, including lower land use. If we were getting all of our meat, milk, and eggs from animals without the use of factory farming, we would indeed need much more land.
That said, we can increasingly MAKE our meat, milk, and eggs from plants! This method of production is better than animal farming across a range of environmental outcomes by AT LEAST 10 TIMES! We will also soon see cultured meat, grown directly from animal cells, which again is several times more efficient to produce than animals. Both of these methods also avoid killing animals.
So, yes, factory farming is more efficient than other kinds of animal farming – but it is FAR LESS efficient than producing plant-based and cell-cultured animal products. The UK should invest in these technologies – they are our only way to have our steak and eat it! ChrisBryantPhD