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Dietary shift will produce farming winners and losers

Farmers could benefit from a shift to healthier, more sustainable diets, however producers in countries that specialise in animal farming would face a sharp fall in income.

Researchers modelled future scenarios in which people’s diets within the EU-27 countries aligned with the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet to varying degrees. They then estimated the effects on agricultural production, incomes and emissions.

Overall, they found the agricultural sector in the EU-27 could benefit from a dietary shift, however some countries stand to win from such a transition while others will lose.

Countries that are highly specialised in animal farming, such as Germany, Ireland and Denmark, are likely to see farmers losing overall income. By contrast, regions with higher shares of vegetable and fruit production like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands can expect income gains.

Shifting European consumption towards the EAT-Lancet recommendations leads to decreasing production of animal-based products, while production of fruits and vegetables increases sharply as do imports.

The shift in supply and demand has a knock-on effect on producer and consumer prices with the price of fruit and vegetables rising sharply while the price of animal proteins such as beef, pork and milk falls.

All dietary scenarios result in a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.

The research was published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics and was undertaken as part of the Nutri2Cycle project that receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation.

In Ireland, which specialises in beef and dairy production, the declining prices for these products is modelled to reduce agricultural income in 2030 between 24.8% and 66.8% for the low and high scenarios respectively due to lower demand.

Agricultural income in Italy, which along with Spain is the biggest producer of vegetables and fruits in the EU-27, increases between 3.2% and 12.3% as a result of higher prices for vegetables and fruits.

Overall, shifts to healthier, more sustainable diets result in a rise in total agricultural income in the EU-27 as losses resulting from the decline in producer prices and production of animal products, feed and sugar are offset by higher prices and production for vegetables and fruits.

Should the EAT Lancet diet be adopted in full, overall spending on food would rise by 29% in 2050, mainly driven by the high consumer prices for vegetables and fruits. It would also result in a huge spike in imports of fruits and vegetables to meet demand, predominantly from South and Central America.

The UK, which was not included as part of the study, is currently heavily reliant on imports to meet demand for fruit and vegetables: 56% of fresh vegetables and just 13% of fruits consumed in the UK were produced domestically in 2021. By contrast, the UK produces a roughly equivalent volume of meat, milk and eggs to what it consumes.