Scottish Field

BACK TO BASICS

Veganism and vegetarian­ism are on the rise, but Scotland’s land isn’t made for plant-based diets – it is far better suited to traditiona­l red meat and dairy farming, says Joanna Blythman

-

Joanna Blythman sets us straight on vegan and vegetarian diets

You must have been asleep if you missed the Groundhog Day narrative that has been playing on loop all year. ‘Experts’ have concluded that we should turn vegan, or at least vegetarian. In other words, we must all reject omnivorism – that’s eating from every food group – the diet that has sustained human population­s around the globe for millennia.

To the uncritical eye, the plant-based lobby is simply articulati­ng a global scientific consensus. So if you weren’t already concerned about what eating red meat and dairy products might be doing to your health, thanks to misguided government low-fat ‘healthy eating’ guidelines, a dose of guilt-tripping ‘go vegan to save the planet’ evangelism has been added to the mix. Mainstream media have adopted it enthusiast­ically as a source of eye-grabbing headlines, a lazy generator of reader engagement.

But steady on. Do we really want to put ourselves in a situation where we turn our backs on the time-honoured, supremely nutritious foods that our land is best at producing?

In the UK as a whole, two-thirds of land is grass unsuitable for growing any arable or horticultu­ral crop, and an awful lot of such land is in Scotland. We really don’t have a climate for growing quinoa, jackfruit or other trendy staples of the plantbased diet, on any commercial scale. I’ve yet to see an avocado tree grow here. But red meat and dairy? Scotland is brilliant at producing those.

The beauty of the traditiona­l livestock agricultur­e we practice in Scotland, just like our ancestors before us, is that it is appropriat­e to the ecology and climatic conditions of our land. Ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and deer) can graze pastures that could support no other sort of food production and turn that natural asset into nutritious food for us humans.

I’m not a fan of jingoistic flag-waving or tartan bragging – along the lines of ‘our country has the best X in the world’ – but Scotland’s internatio­nal reputation for its fine beef and lamb, based on breeds like Aberdeen Angus and Highland, Soay and Blackface, is a reflection of just how well livestock production suits our hilly green country.

I’m right behind animal welfare activists who want to end factory farming and stop the nonsensica­l feeding of cereals to livestock that might instead feed people. I fully support the initiative by the Pasture Fed Livestock Associatio­n to see that the term ‘grass-fed’ can only legally be used for animals fed solely on grass for 100% of their lives. But even

here there’s room for nuance. In Scotland, I understand that much of the cereals fed to cattle to finish them for sale are byproducts of other activities, such as spent grain from the whisky industry, and quite inedible for humans. And is there any harm in feeding a few turnips to sheep to keep them going when grazing is poor? Let’s not split hairs here, largely grassfed seems a reasonable position to me.

When animal rights activists argue, and they do, that using animals for food is as bad as the heinous crime of the human slave trade, you realise that this debate has become silly. What we need to do is distinguis­h between the type of animal production that is part of the problemind­ustrialise­d factory farming, and the sort that is part of the solution – regenerati­ve agricultur­e. In terms of climate effects, any methane produced by livestock reared in the latter circumstan­ces is short-lived, and offset by the benefit of the carbon that is sequestere­d in the permanent pastures they graze.

I’d love to see a bunch of earnest vegans attempting to plough Scottish grassland to grow plant foods for humans. Left to these evangelist­s, few – if any – of whom appear to have any practical food-growing experience, I suspect we’d all be very hungry, and Scotland’s food security and self-reliance would plummet. There’s the odd acre or two currently grazed by livestock that might be bullied and teased into plant-based food production, through the liberal applicatio­n of environmen­tally ruinous fossil fuel-derived pesticides, and fertiliser­s made from synthetic nitrogen that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion, but the ploughing required would release into the atmosphere all the carbon locked in these once permanent pastures.

Let vegan-gelists rant and rail, the key point here is that each nation must align its diet to the productive capacity of its land. Will that penny drop? The latest Internatio­nal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land use and food security was widely misreporte­d as a blueprint for veganism. The Guardian for instance reported that the IPCC advocated ‘a major shift towards vegetarian­ism and vegan diets’, and quoted it as saying a diet ‘based on coarse grained, pulses and vegetables, and nuts and seeds’, omitting the words ‘and animal-sourced produce’ that followed.

Actually, the IPCC noted that ‘ruminants can have positive ecological effects (species diversity, soil carbon) if they are fed extensivel­y on existing grasslands’, and concluded that balanced diets should include animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainabl­e and low greenhouse gas-emissions systems. If ever a country fitted that bill, it’s Scotland.

 ??  ?? Homegrown: Red meat and dairy farming are among the most important industries in Scotland.
Homegrown: Red meat and dairy farming are among the most important industries in Scotland.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom