Responsible agriculture takes an agro-ecological approach. Agro-ecology not only maintains the health of the land, but can regenerate degraded terrains. It manages and mimics ecological processes, making the most of on-farm resources and minimizing the use of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and chemical inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, with a focus on minimal water use, healthy soils and on incorporating crops, trees and wildlife in symbiotic ways. Crucially, healthier soils absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and more effectively retain water, necessitating less irrigation.
Farming (all crops and livestock)
Globally, agricultural expansion is responsible for 70% of global deforestation, and is the single greatest threat to highly biodiverse tropical forests. The UK is also home to unique habitats such as saltmarshes, peatlands and floodplain meadows, which store water and reduce the risk of flooding, lock up carbon, filter pollution and support wildlife. These habitats have come under threat from agriculture, among other land use changes. A reduction in habitat reduces or eliminates the breeding, foraging or migratory routes of many species. Boundaries such as hedges, ditches, banks and stone walls act as corridors for wildlife and serve to maintain a diverse ecology, create habitats for beneficial animals and insects (as pest predators and pollinators), and provide shelter for livestock. Trees also play a vital part in conserving species diversity, including offering habitats for pest predators, food for pollinators, regulating water run-off, protecting soils from erosion and offering shelter to livestock.
Healthy soils are vital for food production, helping provide roots with sufficient water, air and nutrients for good crop growth. Returning manure and/or plant waste to the soil as well as crop rotation, forms the basis of good soil fertility management and improves water retention. Fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other agro-chemicals pollute our drinking water, our air, our marine environment, and may harm wildlife and may pose a threat to human health yet pests, weeds and disease can be kept in check without the use of toxic chemicals. Protecting soils from erosion is also fundamental to soil health.
Water is a renewable resource as it gets recycled through evaporation, transpiration and rainfall but it is often extracted from the natural cycle on such a scale that it is not necessarily available when and where we need it. Good water stewardship is socially equitable and environmentally sustainable, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site- and catchment-based actions.
Soy is a crop that provides vegetable oil for products such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine, soups and biscuits and can be bought as soy mince and soy milk. Soy can be listed under a number of different names; vegetable broth, vegetable oil, vegetable protein, vegetable paste, textured vegetable protein (TVP), hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) or hydrolysed plant proteins (HPP). Soy production often results in indiscriminate (and illegal) clearance of forest and savannah, loss of biodiversity, the threatening of endangered species, air and water pollution, soil erosion, pest invasions, and disregard for local community and indigenous right – in some cases it has displaced smallholder subsistence crops.
Palm oil is used in about 50% of all packaged food products in supermarkets today, including in ice-cream, margarine, biscuits, packaged bread, pizza dough and chocolate. Palm oil can be listed under a vast array of different names (see here). Palm oil cultivation has been linked with the destruction of primary (untouched) forest – habitats critical for endangered species (including the orangutan), carbon storage and the provision of freshwater for communities, with soil erosion and fertiliser use, biodiversity loss, excessive pesticide use, fires, forcible displacement of local communities and workers' rights violations.
Sugarcane is a water-intensive crop; plantations have led to biodiversity loss and the degradation of tropical forests, fragile coastal wetlands and islands; wastewater and soot, ash and ammonia from processing mills lead to water and air pollution; soil and agrochemicals pollute waterways and damage marine life. Sugarcane fields are sometimes burned, killing wildlife.
Meat and Dairy
Welfare and health
Animal management must be based on the ‘five freedoms’: Freedom from malnutrition, Freedom from thermal and physical discomfort, Freedom from injury and disease, Freedom from fear and distress and Freedom from unnecessary restrictions of behaviour. Animals must be able to pursue their natural behaviours. They need access to the outdoors: for fresh air and exposure to natural light; for opportunities to forage; for exercise; and to carry out all other their natural behaviours, all of which contribute to well-being. They need a natural diet, have shelter and comfortable bedding, and not live in cramped conditions. Anything that deviates from this causes the animal distress and can risk their health. The routine use of antibiotics to enable animals to cope in more intensive systems has been described by the British Medical Association and the World Health Organization as a real threat to human health. When slaughtered, all animals and poultry should be stunned by a method that stops their hearts before their throats are cut (‘stun-killing’). Animals should not be transported alive for longer than 8 hours.
Feed and waste
Vast areas of land are needed to grow animal feed and the sea is exploited to provide fishmeal. Feed is also a critical factor in the production of greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. Huge numbers of livestock produce the greenhouse gases methane from belching, flatulence and their manure, and indirectly generate the more potent gas nitrous oxide, which is released when nitrogen-based fertilisers are used to grow their feed. Fertilisers and effluent pollute both the atmosphere and our waterways. Alternative sources of feed could be sourced from legumes, insects, algae, or food processing waste by-products or food waste. Managing how many animals and birds are kept within a certain amount of space ensures the land can absorb the manure generated by the animals; this should not exceed 170kg of nitrogen waste per hectare, per year.
Soy is a crop that provides both vegetable oil [see Major Crops section above] and livestock feed. It is also sourced for biofuel, serving as an alternative to fossil fuels for transport and energy generation. Soy production often results in indiscriminate (and illegal) clearance of forest and savannah, loss of biodiversity, the threatening of endangered species, air and water pollution, soil erosion, pest invasions, and disregard for local community and indigenous rights – in some cases it has displaced smallholder subsistence crops.
Many cattle in the UK, Ireland and Northern France are fattened on grass, but many are fattened indoors across most of Europe. Cattle raising has been linked with the destruction of rainforest and poor practices can damage soils, pollute rivers, and degrade downstream ecosystems like reefs and mangroves. Beef production has also been linked with illegal deforestation. Cattle produce potent greenhouse gases methane from belching, flatulence and their manure, and indirectly nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen-based fertilisers used to grow their feed.
Dairy cows are required to give birth to one calf per year to continue producing milk; they tend to be productive for an average of three years, after which they are culled for meat because they are usually chronically lame and/or infertile. The Holstein-Friesian dairy cow has been bred to produce 22 litres of milk a day; to feed a calf they would need only 3-4 litres per day. Cows are being kept indoors for increasing amount of time, or even all year round (known as ‘zero grazing’). Cattle produce potent greenhouse gases methane from belching, flatulence and their manure, and indirectly nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen-based fertilisers used to grow their feed.
Most veal comes from calves born to dairy cows. There are very few veal farms in the UK but they are common in Europe. Male calves born to dairy cows in the UK are either destroyed or exported. There are welfare concerns about how long calves are transported for across the EU.
Chicken (for meat and eggs)
Chickens are either egg-layers or broiler chickens (reared for meat). The majority of chickens of both sorts are reared in densely packed barns or are caged and lack adequate space to roam outdoors.
Pigs are often kept in crowded factories, which are extremely stressful and make the animals vulnerable to illnesses, which are then quickly transmitted. Antibiotics are routinely used with the result that bacteria have become resistant to them. There is no legal definition for ‘free-range pork’ although there is a voluntary industry code.
Intensively farmed turkeys are kept inside in cramped conditions with the attendant risks of lameness, foot sores and eye problems. Fast-growing breeds are often used, which can result in heart problems for the birds. De-beaking is common.
Mutton & lamb (and dairy)
Most sheep are farmed outdoors in extensive systems, with less than 1% kept in intensive systems. However, lambs are routinely castrated without anaesthetic, and suffer tail docking. Sheep and lambs can be transported long distances in cramped conditions without access to water and adequate ventilation.
Fish and Seafood
The health of our marine environment and the marine life that depends on it, is influenced by a number of factors, in addition to over-fishing including: agriculture [see Soil health section above], waste water treatment, shipping and tourism. Marine pollution can lead to pollutants, bacteria, viruses and toxic algae affecting the quality and safety of seafood.
Large, long-lived species that mature late in life are easily over-fished and being predators, accumulate higher levels of toxins (persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals in the oceans) from consuming vast quantities of contaminated fish. Many of these fish are deep-sea species, which are caught using methods that cause immense habitat damage and generate large volumes of by-catch.
Aquaculture includes a wide variety of production methods involving many species in fresh, brackish and salt water. Fish farms have been linked with: the destruction of fragile ecosystems like mangroves and wetlands that are vital for coastal protection, fish and shellfish nurseries, carbon sequestration and supporting local livelihoods; disease and parasite outbreaks impacting on wild fish; unsustainable amounts of fishmeal as feed; fish escapees that damage local marine life; and pollution from excrement, feed, antibiotics, fertilisers, pesticides, anti-foulants and brackish water that threaten surrounding marine life and water quality. There is also a need to minimise stress for farmed fish, allowing them to meet their physiological and behavioural needs.
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