Vice President's Blog - 24 October 2018

Scotland’s iconic livestock industry is being brought more and more under the spotlight when it comes to its role in addressing climate change writes Vice President Martin Kennedy.

Despite what some would have you believe, farmers recognise the issue and things are changing.

There's no doubt that cattle and sheep release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  But they are only one part of a very complex picture and an easy target for those who seem to have little interest in the big picture or recognising the economic, social and environmental benefits that livestock production across Scotland brings.  Lose farming, and you lose those too!

Continually having to defend our role as producers is, quite frankly, unbelievable given that the one thing we, as people, cannot do without is food.  There are various individuals and organisations who, in their short sightedness, seem desperate to bite the hand that feeds them.

Sticking to the facts, rather than rhetoric, shows that steady progress is being made, through knowledge transfer and voluntary initiatives, to improve our industry’s efficiency and reduce its environmental impact.

According to Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan, the greenhouse gas inventory for the Agriculture and Related Land Use sector has seen a 25.8% fall in emissions between 1990 and 2015.  A second Scottish Government model uses another way of calculating these things and records a 14% reduction between 1990 and 2016.  Either way, steady if unspectacular progress is being made.

And in our ‘Steps to Change’ document, where we look at a post-Brexit agricultural policy for Scotland, we look to build on that by suggesting a range of relevant environmental measures, delivering on national priorities in relation to climate change, water quality and biodiversity.

Addressing climate change and improving agricultural productivity can be complementary and our range of suggested measures at a farm level extend to soil health and nutrient management plans; carbon audits and carbon management.

Livestock farming is already assisting the mitigating measures being taken to address climate change and will do so in the future.  To back this up, we need to understand better how the whole process works.

Do carbon capture calculations properly identify what is being sequestrated by our hills, uplands and peatlands and fairly balance that against emissions from the livestock grazing those areas and turning that grass and heather into locally-produced, affordable, tasty protein?

It has been quoted that our peatlands in Scotland already hold more carbon than all the trees in Western Europe.   Even applying lime to our ground, which improves vastly the carbon capture capabilities of our soils, appears to go against us when working out our carbon footprint.

There’re not many other industries I can think of that has such a positive story to tell when it comes to carbon sequestration, so our industry must be taken in perspective to all others, and not simply condemned without recognition of the positives.                 

On the environment, one of the biggest challenges many of the species we have here in Scotland have, whether it's rare plants or many forms of wildlife that we all like to see, is land abandonment. If we're not careful then not looking at this wider picture could see our iconic landscapes, which are already feeling the strain, change dramatically.

The relentless mantra from some would have the public believe that producing less meat would address climate change at a single stroke.  

They fail to see the bigger picture and need to appreciate the wider impact that reducing livestock numbers, particularly on our hills and uplands, could bring - a negative effect on our ability to capture carbon; permanent pasture going under the plough; managed uplands reverting to scrub; reduced economic activity in remote and fragile areas and the red meat sector’s contribution to our important foods and drink sector undermined.

If we want to live, we have no choice other than rely on food which fortunately, in the UK, is produced to the highest standards. Don't take this for granted, as those of us who produce these products have rarely felt so undervalued. It would be disastrous if we don't recognise this till it's too late.

Politicians, stakeholders and the public need to have all the facts on climate change before making decisions that might ultimately fly in the face of their original desire.

Any future targets for reducing emissions must be appropriate and balanced against the wide range of benefits delivered by livestock production.

We are all in this climate change challenge together and farming should play its part, but what we must avoid is just pointing the finger and apportioning blame and then setting targets to reduce emissions without thinking through the wider implications or how the industry will be supported through a period of significant change.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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