Sustainable farming: Cows in a biodiverse field

Food production and sustainable farming

How does farming affect our environment?

Intensive farming is linked to loss of wildlife, soil and water pollution, and poor animal welfare.

Some people say it's the only way to feed a growing world population at a time when climate change, soil degradation and water shortages are threatening food production.

But we don't need factory farms, loads of chemicals or genetically modified seeds to feed a growing population.

We need to improve the ways we produce food – and learn from farmers in the UK and abroad who are cutting their emissions, restoring their soils and protecting their local ecosystems. We also need to eat more plants, less and better meat (and dairy), and waste less food. Our food and farming system needs a healthy environment, and must play its part in building one.

Farming: The facts

40%
of all antibiotics consumed in the UK are used on farm animals  
8
billion animals are killed for food each year in the UK
475,000
35%
the amount global food demand is expected to increase by 2030
75%
of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species

What's the problem with pesticides and fertilisers?

Some farmers use pesticides to try and keep insects and other bugs away from their crops. But pesticides harm our wildlife and environment, and add toxins into the food chain.

Some pesticides are especially harmful to the bees we rely on to pollinate our food. Pesticides can also impact on the health of farm workers – causing severe and sometimes fatal illness.

Farmers often also use fertilisers to add nutrients to their soils and help crops grow faster. But too much synthetic fertiliser can lead to pollution of local streams and rivers with nitrogen, killing fish and plant life. 

We know that there are some great farmers out there. They're maintaining healthy soils that don't need fertilisers, and managing bugs and diseases the natural way. That's great news for their health, our tastebuds and the environment. 

Genetically modified food – what's wrong with it?

Genetically modified (GM) foods are produced by changing the genetic make-up of crops and other plants to alter their characteristics.

Despite promises of miracle crops, GM technology has failed to increase food yields and it's made the problems caused by intensive farming worse. They benefit big farmers and biotech corporations – not us.

We think it would be a mistake to grow GM crops commercially in the UK [PDF]. We need a farming approach that works with nature, not against it. GM crops are not needed for future food production [PDF].

People have a right to eat GM-free food, but a loophole in our labelling laws means that milk, meat and eggs from GM-fed animals are not labelled.

Animal welfare

Just like humans, animals need access to food and water, good quality housing and safe living conditions, free from fear or pain. They should be able to go outside, move around freely and eat a natural diet.

Many farmers understand that providing these conditions benefits the animals and is better for the environment. It also leads to better-quality, better-tasting meat

The UK has laws to protect farm animals, but they aren't perfect. Many intensive farms still keep animals in conditions that encourage disease and discomfort.

New trade agreements could see our supermarkets selling more low-welfare products unless we protect food standards after Brexit.

Make sure all your meat is RSPCA Assured – and buy organic when you can – to support farmers who treat their animals well.

How much does your supermarket care about animal welfare?

Is there a problem with factory farms?

Factory farming involves raising animals in large numbers (and at high density) in a factory-like environment. It's also called 'intensive farming'. 

The aim of factory farming is to produce as much meat, eggs or dairy at the lowest possible cost.

It needs high volumes of cheap animal feed – which has been linked to deforestation around the world. And all that livestock means lots of waste, which can pollute local soils and water, damaging biodiversity and killing fish. 30% of the nitrogen that pollutes water in the EU [PDF] comes from livestock.

Intensive farms also rely on antibiotics and pesticides to prevent the spread of disease in crowded living conditions. This means that intensive farms don't offer a healthy environment for the animals living there. 

And factory farming isn't just bad for the environment and animal welfare. It's bad for our health. Studies have shown that intensively produced meat contains less vitamins and more unhealthy fats [PDF] than pasture fed, extensively raised animals. Plus, people living near factory farms have reported health problems linked to the huge amounts of manure they produce, which is often spread on nearby fields. 

How will Brexit change food and farming in the UK?

Leaving the EU will mean changes to the food we produce, buy and eat. It could lead to lower food standards, less support for farmers to protect the environment, and fewer rules to protect our environment.

But Brexit also presents an historic opportunity to reshape our food and farming system for the better.

Friends of the Earth has joined forces with farmers, consumers and other charities to develop ideas about how the UK farming system could be improved after Brexit. 

We think it is important that whatever happens after the UK leaves the EU, we improve the sustainability of our food system and support farmers to produce food in ways that don't harm the environment. 

Animals and antibiotics – is there a risk?

40% of all antibiotics used in the UK are given to farm animals, not humans. And most of the time, these animals aren't even ill. Sounds like a waste, doesn't it?

But it gets worse. Using antibiotics at low doses before the animal even becomes ill is causing big problems. Resistant strains of bacteria are evolving, leading to some antibiotics becoming less effective. That means that giving antibiotics to pigs, cows, sheep and chickens is making it harder to treat ill humans for serious diseases. 

And why give antibiotics to so many animals? Intensive farms rely on antibiotics to prevent their animals getting ill in cramped, low-welfare conditions. If using antibiotics like this was banned, farms would need to treat their animals better and give them more room.

We think that sick animals should be treated with the right drugs to make them better. But healthy animals shouldn't. Choose organic meat to be sure that you're not supporting inappropriate antibiotic use, and help save these important treatments for the people who need them.