Converting animal farmland to forest

| 17th April 2019
The UK can convert animal farmland to forest and still grow enough protein as well as help combat climate change, Harvard research shows.

Almost half of all land in the UK is currently used for farming animals, providing very little nutrition compared to the resource inputs involved.

Scientific research has shown that the UK can still produce enough protein and calories without the need to farm animals for meat, which is welcome news to the increasing number of people who are are already eating increasingly plant-based diets.

A brand new study from Harvard University has found that the UK would be able to sustain itself by returning a portion of land used for animal agriculture back to forest. It showed that converting land currently used for grazing and growing animal feed crops to forest could soak up 12 years’ carbon emissions.

British lead author Dr Helen Harwatt, speaking at the first of its kind Grow Green Conference which was all about plant agriculture, warned the UK is far from having a Paris Agreement-compliant food system.


The legally binding agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

Researchers modelled a scenario where pasture land is returned back to forest and the areas used for growing animal feed are converted to grow health-promoting crops for human consumption.

They found this could make a fair national contribution to tackling the climate crisis and provide enough protein and calories for the British population.

Animal agriculture is an inefficient way of producing food, as for every 100 calories we feed to animals, we receive only 12 calories back by consuming their flesh and milk.

Almost half of all land in the UK is currently used for farming animals, providing very little nutrition compared to the resource inputs involved.


The UK imports a staggering 90 percent of its fruit and vegetables and we currently grow 50% of what we eat nationwide.

Beans and other pulses are very efficient crops to grow in Britain – as they have nutritional and environmental benefits – and could be grown in place of animal feed, in addition to a range of fruit and vegetables.

Meeting the Paris Agreement also requires carbon dioxide (CO2) removal from the atmosphere, which the researchers found we can “eat our way to” by returning pasture and animal feed crop land back to forest.

Almost half of all land in the UK is currently used for farming animals, providing very little nutrition compared to the resource inputs involved.

The report details unique findings from two scenarios. The first maximises CO2 removal by returning pasture land and cropland used to grow animal feed back to forest. This removes the same amount of CO2 as 12 years of the UK’s current emissions.

The second scenario trades off some of the CO2 removal and keeps croplands in production, to allow for an increased and diversified supply of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and pulses to the UK population. This removes CO2 equal to 9 years of the UK’s current emissions.

Radical action

Scenario 2 maximises the opportunity to produce more fruits, vegetables and pulses, to help meet changing consumer demands for more plant-based foods, and help address the mass under consumption of the five-a-day fruit and vegetables recommendation.

The UK would be self-sufficient under this scenario.

The new habitats would also create opportunities to tackle the wildlife crisis by reintroducing beavers, turtle doves and lynx.

These suggestions would of course need to be supported by the government but are nevertheless a fascinating insight into what we can do as a country to help combat climate change.

Dr Harwatt and Dr Hayek emphasised there is a need for a radical action, far beyond that currently planned, to reduce emissions steeply and rapidly. There is no ‘business as usual’ for any industry anymore.

This author

Dominika Piasecka is media and PR officer at The Vegan Society and a keen vegan activist. If you care about the environment and want to learn about how veganism benefits it, take our seven-day planet-saving challenge here. A copy of the full report can be found on the Harvard website.

Image: cocoparisienne via Pixabay

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