Forward together: Reduction in meat and dairy consumption must be done in a balanced way

John Devlin
John Devlin
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Over a century ago, Henry Ford, who revolutionised the automobile business, stated: “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

He recognised the value of collaboration and partnership as the best way to force change for the better.

Jumping forward to today, the same spirit of co-operation is essential for us to make anything like the progress required to ensure we meet the severe challenges posed by global warming.

Over the next three decades, the entire planet will face significant challenges to address climate change effectively, which is now politically recognised in some quarters as an emergency. The UK Government is committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the Scottish Government has set a target of five years earlier, by 2045.

One clear goal is a reduction in consumption of meat and dairy products globally. Reports have highlighted how reducing the amount of meat eaten, especially red meat, could also cut the emissions contributed by the agricultural sector. Our response to this must be balanced and fully acknowledge the consequences for health, food security, local environments, rural communities and wider society. There is no single approach that will work for everywhere in the world.

If we reduce red meat as part of our diets, we must also be careful about what we are substituting in its place. The UK imports nearly half of its food. If we replace meat in our diet with food that damages the environment in its country of origin, then we have simply shifted the burden elsewhere, on to nations that may be less able to adopt sustainable practices. It therefore seems more sensible to promote sustainable livestock production (which can also be known as “ruminant agriculture”) on land that cannot be used for other purposes, as efficiently as possible, with the consequent benefits to the local environment, people and rural economies.

Professor Wayne Powell and professor Julie Fitzpatrick. Picture Chris Watt.

Professor Wayne Powell and professor Julie Fitzpatrick. Picture Chris Watt.

In addressing the challenges of ruminant agriculture and climate change, we must recognise the importance, uniqueness and significance of Scotland’s rural economy. Therefore those of us who help to shape a thriving rural economy have a responsibility to ensure that our response is evidence-based and fit for purpose. It is not a simple task. Populations will continue to rise, so we need to produce more food securely and sustainably, while simultaneously reducing the effect of this production on our shared environment.

What we therefore must do is work towards creating a truly circular food economy. This is where all resources used in the agricultural industry are optimised; not just on farms, but across the whole food supply chain. These resources must be used to their full potential, requiring new processes, products, technologies, economic models and behaviours.

This presents Scotland with a real opportunity: to create a virtuous circle of productivity through the integration of livestock as part of a circular food economy. Much of Scotland is ideally suited to pastoral systems that effectively produce livestock and sustain Scotland’s distinctive and valuable landscape. Furthermore, maintaining soil fertility in grassland requires fertiliser, which should come from the animal themselves. As part of a circular food economy, fresh innovations will further enhance sustainability, such as using seaweed and insect protein produced from food waste, providing supplementary feed when required.

Meat production can be made sustainable, resilient and productive through the application of modern technology. This includes the application of modern genetics, nutrition, modifying the microbial composition of the rumen, the Internet of Things and digital twinning. If we get this right, it will be possible to significantly improve nutritional efficiency and reduce methane emissions, and improve livestock health through targeted vaccination. The game-changing outcome is that animals produce meat more efficiently and with a fraction of the greenhouse gases they produce currently.

Getting this right is a national priority. At SRUC and Moredun, we are at the forefront of developing and applying new innovative solutions that will solve these challenges. We cannot do this in isolation. The scale and urgency of these complex challenges demand unprecedented levels of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, farmers, business and government: a “Team Scotland” approach. It won’t be easy but we are determined to change our planet for the better.

Professor Wayne Powell is principal and chief executive, Scotland’s Rural College

Professor Julie Fitzpatrick is cientific director of the Moredun Research Institute and chief executive of the Moredun Foundation

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s autumn edition of Vision. A digital version can be found here.