If consumers followed government advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day then it could have serious implications for land use in the UK, according to researchers.

A research project funded by the UK Research Council’s Rural Economy and Land Use programme has identified that the move would hit areas hard that are traditionally dependent on beef and sheep production.

Researchers suggest that in order to produce the quantity of fruit and vegetables needed many more hectares of intensive production would be grown in poly tunnels – which are controversial in some areas because of their impact on the landscape.

The team assumed that the percentage of imports would remain the same as they are now.

The move would lead to a decline in demand for red meat which would mean that Wales and the south west of England would suffer a severe decline in livestock numbers.

For example, in Wales, cattle numbers could fall by 400,000 head and sheep numbers would be halved. In the north of England both sheep and cattle numbers would fall by 2000,000 head each. Some upland areas could be abandoned.

Prof Bruce Traill, Professor of Agricultural and Food Economics at the University of Reading said: “Undoubtedly the UK Government has a duty to promote the health of the population and within this research project we have been looking at the most effective ways of doing that, whether by fiscal measures, social marketing, or by trying to enhance the nutritional qualities of the foods that people eat.  There is potential in all of these approaches, if they are targeted effectively

“But we do also have to consider the potential unintended consequences of policies.  For rural communities, such as the dairying industry of south west England and upland areas of the UK these could be far-reaching and need to be taken into account.” 

Results from the research will be among the presentations at “The Future of Rural Land Use” conference on Thursday 4 June 2009, at Congress House, Great Russell Street in London.