Rewilding for climate change: Should UK farmers transform livestock land into woodlands?

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags: vertical farming, farming, Livestock

A well-known British scientist has suggested that half of the UK’s farmland be rewilded into woodlands and natural habitat to tackle the climate emergency. Could this be a win-win for the agricultural industry and planet alike?

The global climate and environmental crises have seen greenhouse gas emissions push temperatures up, while natural resource levels fall.

The modern food and farming system – which has been described as aiming to produce as much food, for as little money, as possible​ – is at least partly responsible. As it stands, food production accounts for approximately one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So how can the agri-food industry best move forward, while working within carbon limits?

According to former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Prof Sir Ian Boyd, the answer lies in ‘rewilding’ a significant segment of agricultural land.

Rewilding livestock land

Rewilding refers to the transformation of conventional farmland into woodlands and natural habitat.

“Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself. It seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.” – Rewilding Britain

According to Boyd’s argument, published in UK newspaper The Guardian​, rewilding half of the UK’s farmland could help tackle climate change and restore wildlife, while preventing floods and reinstating scenic regions.

The former chief scientific adviser to the UK government suggested that uplands and pasture – responsible for just 20% of the UK’s food – be rewilded, and farmers paid for growing trees and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the newspaper reported.

“We need a large, radical transformation and we need to do it quickly, in the next decade. You can tick an immense number of boxes simultaneously.”

The role of agri-tech

So how could industry recuperate the 20% of food production lost through rewilding farmland? According to Boyd​, new technologies in farming could play a significant role in the future of UK farming.

Boyd points to vertical farming – otherwise known as ‘plant factories’. Vertical farms are vertically-stacked, fully controlled environments used to produce food. They have the potential to help societies meet elevated demand for food, without the need for additional farmland.

According to forecasts from research provider Global Market Insights, the vertical farming market is expected to expand by 25% by 2024, to reach a value of €11.4bn.

In the UK, vertical farming is attracting attention from investors, growers, and retailers alike. Scottish food tech group Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) recently opened its first demo indoor vertical farm​, and in 2019 online retailer Ocado announced two investments in vertical farming​: one in a new joint venture deal, and the other in the UK’s largest vertical farm operator, Jones Food Company (JFC).

vertical farming LouisHiemstra

Yet capacity and energy remain two key challenges in the vertical farming sector.

“I know there are big companies looking at how to really scale this up,” ​said Boyd.

So what do farmers think?

When FoodNavigator approached UK representation body for agriculture and horticulture, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), we were told British farmers are already ‘some of the most sustainable’ in the world, ‘leading the way in producing climate-friendly food’.

“However, we will not halt climate change by curbing sustainable, British production and exporting it to countries which may not have the same climate ambition as we do here,” ​said NFU deputy president Guy Smith.

While the NFU does support the planting of more trees, this is just part of its efforts towards a more sustainable future, he elaborated. The deputy president also highlighted that rewilding is not the only way farmers can contribute to carbon storage.

“The NFU’s plan to reach net zero includes planting more trees but this is only one element. We recognise that there is no silver bullet solution and there are other practical measures farmers can take to capture and store carbon more quickly.

“These go hand-in-hand with a broad range of climate change solutions which agriculture offers including reducing emissions through increasing productivity and boosting renewable energy and the bio-economy.”

UK Government pledges 75,000 acres of trees

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was re-elected in a general election on 12 December 2019. Under Johnson’s leadership, the party has pledged £640m for a new Nature for Climate fund, to help reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Although not aligned with the concept of rewilding, the government has pledged an additional 75,000 acres of trees by 2024, and has committed to restoring peatland and creating new national parks.

The party’s manifesto also notes its support of the natural environment, via the reiteration of its intention to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with a system based on ‘public money for public goods’. In return, the government asks that agriculturists farm “in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, as well as safeguarding high standards of animal welfare”.

UK food and farming charity Sustain, however, has voiced concerns that the English Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) does not ‘adequately address’ the issues at hand.

“We have long supported a ‘public money for public goods’ approach and are supporting the development of the ELMS and the devolved schemes that will govern what kind of farming public money will support in the future. Farmers need secured multiannual funding to deliver the goods,” ​noted Sustain.

“We are concerned that ELMS does not yet adequately address the climate and nature emergency, nor the role of public subsidies in catalysing the shift to agro-ecological farming and sustainable land use.”

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