Sustainable farming: Cows in a biodiverse field

Food production and sustainable farming

Bale of hay in a field in the frosty morning light

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.

Bale of hay in a field in the frosty morning light
Stephen Briggs, farmer


A whopping 72% of UK land is currently used by farmers for food production, but combining trees with farming (agroforestry) gives us the option to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and make farming more profitable, productive, and sustainable.

Agroforestry is already common across countries like Spain and Portugal, and right now pioneering farmers in the UK are doing their bit to increase tree cover and hedgerows on their land, to the benefit of farming and nature.

Stephen Briggs, farmer

Farming: The facts

of all antibiotics consumed in the UK are used on farm animals  
billion+ farm animals are killed for food each year in the UK
jobs provided by agriculture in the UK
the amount global food demand is expected to increase by 2030
of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species
Crop spraying on field of yellow plants.

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 harm bees – and we rely on bees to pollinate our food. Pesticides can also affect 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. 

Crop spraying on field of yellow plants.
GM fruit? Gloved hand injects an apple with a substance in a syringe

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. We need a farming approach that works with nature, not against it. GM crops are not needed for future food production.

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.

Find out more about GM foods from GM Freeze.

GM fruit? Gloved hand injects an apple with a substance in a syringe
Two farmed pigs or piglets facing away from the camera - pig bums.

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 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.

Find out more about high welfare food.

Two farmed pigs or piglets facing away from the camera - pig bums.
Weaner piglets in a cage on an intensive factory farm

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. Some 30% of the nitrogen that pollutes water in the EU [PDF] comes from livestock.

Intensive farms also rely on antibiotics and pesticides to prevent disease in crowded conditions. This means 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 the farms produce, which is often spread on nearby fields. 

Weaner piglets in a cage on an intensive factory farm
Pile of antibiotics meant for use by sick humans, not healthy livestock

Animals and antibiotics – is there a risk?

30% of all antibioticsconsumed in the UK are used on farm animals. And most of the time, these animals aren't even ill. Sounds like a waste, doesn't it?

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 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 were banned, farms would need to treat their animals better and give them more room.

We think sick animals should be treated with the right drugs to make them better. But healthy animals shouldn't.

Choose organic meat to be sure you're not supporting inappropriate antibiotic use – and help save these important treatments for the people who need them.

Find out more about use of antibiotics.

Pile of antibiotics meant for use by sick humans, not healthy livestock