An agroecological UK in 2050

What does food and farming look like after the transition?

7th January 2022

These slides were first presented at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2022, and set out the data behind FFCC's Farming for Change research, which models an agroecological UK in 2050.

Explanatory notes for these slides can be found below.

Slide 2 of 7: How farmland is currently used across the whole of the UK

In this first graphic, we see how farmland is currently used across the whole of the UK in percentage terms. It’s not a very diverse picture – there’s lots of permanent grassland, which we’d expect given this is the dominant landscape we have across the UK, but there’s also a high proportion of fodder crops – more surprising given we’ve clearly got plenty of grass to feed ruminant livestock.

Slide 3 of 7: Agroecology brings balance and diversity to the farming landscape

This is how things have changed in 2050 after the transition. At first glance, things might not seem so different, but there are important changes here. It’s a more diverse and balanced picture. Pulses and legumes increase considerably while permanent grassland, though decreasing in percentage terms, still accounts for the majority of UK farmland.

These changes allow synthetic nitrogen to be phased out. This is possible, the model shows, by carefully husbanding nutrients with livestock and by integrating legumes into rotations. As these crops fix nitrogen in the soil, ruminant livestock cycle and supply organic nitrogen in manure, the cornerstone of mixed farming systems.

And farming more mixed landscapes, that allow a greater number and diversity of insects, birds and mammals to flourish, helps to control pests without the use of herbicides and pesticides, which are also eliminated from UK farming in this agroecological future.

Striking too is that land for ponds, trees, hedges and fallow on farms doubles. A further 1.2m hectares can be dedicated to increasingly high-nature value farming, peatland restoration, woodland and to re-establish species evolved for non-agricultural habitats. In total, 10% of current agricultural land can be used to restore ecosystems for nature and climate recovery.

Slide 4 of 7: Emissions from agriculture in 2010 compared to emissions from an agroecological UK in 2050

This brings us to how an agroecological UK reduces emissions. In this slide, we see the emissions from farming in 2010 and the emissions from an agroecological farming sector in 2050.

The 2050 figure is variable depending on the amount of land given for high-nature value farming, woodlands and peatland restoration, decisions that, I must stress and as we all know, need to be made with the people living and farming that land.

Slide 5 of 7: Emissions with sequestrations taken into account, with plenty of scope for further improvement.

In terms of climate, agroecological farming comes into its own when we include its sequestration potential. Here we see the net emissions from 2010 and 2050 once more, but with the carbon captured and stored on farmland included.

And this remains a conservative estimate for an agroecological UK. I think we should be aiming for agriculture to become a net carbon store as regenerative farming practices develop and our knowledge increases.

Slide 6 of 7: The current average UK diet

This move to more mixed farming, build around rotational cropping, livestock on the land, and reduced synthetic inputs, also sees changes to the UK diet.

In this slide we see a breakdown of the average diet currently consumed in the UK. There’s relatively few vegetables and fruits, lots of sugar and high proportions of milk products and beverages. This is shown here in grams per day.

Slide 7 of 7: In 2050, a more mixed and balanced diet reflects and drives the move to more mixed and balanced farming landscapes across the UK

But as land for sustainable horticulture doubles, so more and better fruits and vegetables, nuts and pulses, is the foundation of a healthy and affordable diet for the 77.5 million people projected to live in the UK by 2050.

And while we talk about less but better meat, it’s important to distinguish between the consumption of beef and sheep, which stays broadly similar because of the important role ruminants play in cycling nutrients, and pork and poultry, which drops considerably as these animals are farmed less intensively in more mixed farming systems.

Focussing on meat is of course important, but we must also examine intensive plant-based systems, where there’s huge danger for unintended consequences for nature and for the chances farmers have to make a fair living, a discussion that is happening of course right across this conference.

So, this more mixed and balanced diet both responds to and drives the move to more mixed and balanced farm landscapes across the UK.

In 2022, FFCC will be supporting the transition to an agroecological UK, by identifying the actions that different types of farm businesses in different areas of the UK are taking to make the transition to fair and sustainable farming. Find out more