New research from Harvard University in the US demonstrates that the UK would be able to sustain itself and help meet the Paris Agreement on climate change by returning a portion of land used for beef, sheep and milk production back to forest.

The work has found that converting land currently used for grazing and growing animal feed crops back to forest could soak up 12 years’ worth of carbon emissions.

Returning grassland back to forest and converting the areas used for growing animal feed to grow health-promoting crops for human consumption could make a significant national contribution towards tackling the global climate crisis and provide enough protein for the British population.

British lead author Dr Helen Harwatt from Harvard University said: “It’s essential for the UK to have a Paris-compliant food system and right now it’s far from that.

Our research shows for the first time that it’s possible and could deliver multiple benefits to the UK population, including more provisions of healthy food, and more forest areas for recreation.

She added: “The new habitats would also create opportunities to tackle the wildlife crisis by reintroducing wildlife, such as beavers, turtle doves and lynx – which is also great news for a nation of animal lovers.”

Dr Harwatt pointed out that the UK imports 90% of its fruit and vegetables, inferring that this situation puts the country in an increasingly precarious position in light of climate change impacts.

Almost half of all land in the UK is currently used for farming animals and re-purposing it represents a good opportunity in meeting climate goals, as it provides very little nutrition compared to the resource inputs involved, the research claims.

According to Harwatt, beans and other pulses are very efficient crops to grow in Britain, as they have nutritional and environmental benefits.

Co-author Dr Matthew Hayek from Harvard University said: “The UK is well suited to growing forest as a natural climate solution. Hundreds of years ago, forests covered the UK as its natural land cover.

“Most grazing occurs on pastures that would return to forests if left untouched by humans and farm animals.”

He further commented: “Forests not only pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also provide a range of co-benefits, such as water filtration, flood defence and greater soil carbon capture, all of which become even more important as the impacts of climate change increase.”

“It’s important for any large-scale land use changes to address potential trade-offs – such as economic livelihoods, which must be protected,” he added.