Andrew Arbuckle: I don’t understand why our industry is misunderstood

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I WAS never too sure about the phrase “living in a parallel universe” as, in a straightforward uncomplicated way, I assumed that most of us were on the same planet. However, this past week, I temporarily stepped into a different world.

I had seen the announcement about a major conference titled Managing Change in Scotland’s Landscape. It was being promoted by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Landscape Institute of Scotland among others, so it had a good pedigree.

I cannot say I was invited, as none of the regular rural press seemed to be there and definitely none of the small band of specialist agri hacks. However, I wandered along as I assumed that farming would play a small part in the challenges facing the landscape in this country and it would be interesting to see how the various parts of the rural jigsaw slotted together.

I should have gathered from the programme that agriculture did not feature too highly as there were none of the usual muddy-booted speaking suspects lined up and there was also no direct mention of what is still Scotland’s
second largest industry – farming.

However, I settled down to a learned discourse on our landscape heritage. I listened to how it was the Victorians who first appreciated the Scottish landscape and incidentally used it for their recreational pursuits such as shooting.

Then, I was pulled back from this historical reverie by a reference to modern farming.

Actually, the phrase used was “industrial-scale farming” and it was included in the same sentence as other present day threats to the landscape. These being wind farms, super-quarries, fish farms, afforestation, inappropriate road developments, and obtrusive recreational facilities.

Now, these are pretty controversial bedfellows for what is, after all, the
industry whose primary goal is producing food, would you not agree?

The speaker passed on and I was left wondering about how he defined industrial-scale farming.

For one man, it might be a broiler house holding 100,000 chickens, but then his neighbour might argue that same property was supplying a cheap protein food for thousands who previously could not have afforded it.

Someone might baulk at seeing today’s large dairy herds, but her neighbour would point out that milk is now cheaper than bottled water and milk-deprived rickety children are thankfully of a previous century.

For some who might prefer to see a stoop-backed peasant hand graiping up his potato patch, a self-propelled potato harvester scooping up tonnes of tatties might be seen as too much industrialisation. So, one man’s desecration of the countryside is seen by another as providing cheap food in a world where food production is now back high on the agenda.

Not that food production was on the agenda of those sitting alongside me. They may well have been thinking they could do with their morning cup of coffee along with a sugary biscuit, but I am sure they were not thinking about where the food came from.

I was tempted to sprint out before the interval and place placards beside the food stands saying this coffee came from a large hillside estate from which all the natural vegetation has been cleared or that the sugar came from a massive monoculture plantation. Then I realised these food producing places are in another country beyond the horizon, and my helpful information would have been discarded as being either unhelpful or superfluous to those studying the Scottish landscape.

I left.

On returning home, I checked with NFU Scotland to see if it minded being excluded from a discussion on how the countryside should look in the future.

It had not been invited but the folk there did know about the conference and decided that the close to £200
attendance fee was not value for money. The union had also perused the agenda and could not find any reference to the key role that farming plays in shaping the landscape and that is quite apart from its important food producing role.

It seems it is possible to live on a parallel universe; one where food appears without the bother of considering where or how it grows as long as it does not get in the way of Scotland’s beautiful landscape.