Meat reducing key to feeding greener Europe

Continent can feed itself without intensive farming and pesticides, provided we eat less meat

Sunrise view at cabbage field in mountain area

Opponents of changing the way we feed ourselves tend to argue that there’s no other way to do it: intensive farming techniques are the only way to cater to our growing population. But a new report has exposed that position for the non-organic fertiliser it is.

Europe could be farming in a more environmentally friendly way while at the same time growing enough to feed the continent’s 740m citizens. Research by the IDDRI, a European think tank, shows that, rather than build our food systems on livestock and battery farming, chemical pesticides and intensive agriculture, the job can be done just as easily in a cleaner, greener way. And meat reducing has a vital part to play.

Agroecology – applying ecological principles to agricultural production – is a way of bringing food-growing techniques into harmony with nature, rather than battling against it. Examples include organic farming and planting using local knowledge, rather than imposing blanket techniques that are poorly suited to the local environment. While the IDDRI’s report, Ten Years for Agroecology, says the switch would affect yields, that could be mitigated by a move away from meat.

If Europe turned its focus from feeding animals to feeding humans – growing crops for people, rather than livestock – it would free up vast tracts of land to grow even more plant-based goodness for citizens. At the moment, more than 50 per cent of the cereals and oilseed grown in EU countries ends up in the bellies of cows, sheep, pigs and poultry. The study says that taking an agroecological approach would mean we require less meat, and production would drop by 40 per cent.

That dovetails with what scientists are increasingly telling us needs to happen if global warming is to be arrested and reversed. A “planetary health diet” recently recommended that the UK and other developed countries eat 80 per cent less red meat.

As well as feeding Europe, agroecology addresses many of the environmental and social issues facing the continent and the world, including poor diet and health, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and habitat loss, and overfarmed, depleted soil. As a result, the report’s authors are urging European policymakers to start preparing now for what they estimate will be a 10-year transition to a greener way of a farming. A decade of hard work, but what a return.