Turning farmers into scientists will help near net zero - Prof Julie Fitzpatrick

New research will be crucial in addressing climate change and improving farming’s sustainability credentials.

But introducing policy which encourages faster and better uptake of existing science by farmers could also dramatically boost the sector’s chances of meeting its net zero targets.

That is the view of Professor Julie Fitzpatrick, scientific director at the Moredun Research Institute, who proposed that future farm support could be targeted to the attendance at Knowledge Exchange meetings and to the adoption of new approaches rather than being tied too specifically to “results and targets”.

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Speaking at a press briefing yesterday, Professor Fitzpatrick, who was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA ) for Scotland earlier this year, said:

“Science has already delivered some, although not all, of the answers required to increase sustainability of livestock in Scotland, however Knowledge Exchange is going to be key in order to increase uptake of actions to reduce disease and improve efficiency.

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“We have the means to reduce GHG arising from livestock while increasing the efficiency of production and optimising welfare – now we need to implement the actions!”

Focusing on animal health she said that globally 20% of productivity was lost due to endemic or production diseases:

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“Many of these are caused by infectious agents resulting in common issues such as pneumonia, lameness, abortion and poor reproduction, and mastitis, to name but a few.”

And Professor Fitzpatrick said that preventing disease therefore reduced waste in primary production:

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“Fewer animals die or have their growth curtailed, poor welfare associated with disease is alleviated, herds and flocks produce the optimal number of offspring per season through better breeding and feeding, and the food derived from livestock is of better quality and safe for consumption.”

And she added that preventing disease also reduced the need for treatment, especially the use of anti-microbial drugs:

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“The use of vaccines to prevent disease will indirectly slow down the emergence of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in bacteria infecting animals and in humans.”

The professor said that baseline data was essential as a starting point for any scheme looking to improve efficiency sustainably while also being able to measure that improvement:

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“Farmers would then provide baseline data for their individual farms, attend livestock health information hubs at a regional level where knowledge exchange would take place including benchmarking with local farming businesses, adopt relevant interventions/improvements, and then undertake measurement and evaluation employing existing or new data over subsequent years.

She said that such an approach would allow farming support to be targeted to attendance at Knowledge Exchange meetings and adoption of new approaches - rather than being tied too specifically to “results and targets”:

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“This avoids difficulties in fluctuations in biological systems such as weather and disease incursions which might in turn result in unfair financial penalties if targets are not achieved. The aim is to encourage and reward adoption of best practice.”

And she added that farmers who choose not to take up these opportunities would be unlikely to be able to maintain their businesses once areas-based farm support was reduced/withdrawn sometime in the future.

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