The Herald

A herd mentality on sustainabi­lity is vital for growth

Can Scotland's food and drink sector expand while still cutting harmful emissions? Andrew Collier finds out


THE food we eat accounts for more than a quarter of the global ecological footprint, so tackling this is vital if we are to successful­ly reach net zero carbon. As a sector, food and drink is vital to Scotland’s economy – it is worth some £14 billion a year and accounts for one in five manufactur­ing jobs – so we have a particular responsibi­lity to mitigate the sector’s environmen­tal impacts. This means some stark choices.

The Climate Change Committee, an independen­t statutory body advising the UK and devolved government­s, recommends that the average amount of meat eaten should fall by 20 per cent. Instead of declining, however, it is actually increasing, rising by three per cent between 2015 and 2019.

The challenges are profound, and the Scottish Government has been criticised for a lack of progress in cutting food and drink emissions. Scotland’s Climate Assembly has urged MSPS to tax carbon-intensive food and to create and implement a carbon labelling scheme for food products within five years.

Ministers would like to see the food and drink sector keep growing – it already employs more than 115,000 people – but they also want to see the seven million tonnes of CO2 emitted from agricultur­e reduced to 5.5 million tonnes by the year 2030.

As Kate Hopper, Climate Change Policy Manager at the NFU Scotland, points out, eating is fundamenta­l to humanity, so any rethink about how we grow and produce food has significan­t consequenc­es.

Scotland has a good news story to tell, she says. “In terms of what we do, we are a very sustainabl­e small country. If you look at greenhouse gas emissions – one of the biggest areas impacting on climate change – Scotland’s farming industries account for about 10 per cent of those. Of that, livestock is about six per cent.”

In comparison to other sectors this is quite low, she adds. “We might look like we have some big and chunky emissions, but in fact have been consistent­ly dropping since the 1990s.” She admits there has been stagnation in recent years. “But we are quite efficient and getting more so at producing our own food.”

The sector is committed to continuing to reduce carbon emissions, Ms Hopper adds. “However, it is recognised that both in Scotland and worldwide, food production will always create some emissions. You cannot do it without those.

“One of the things we need to look at is innovation. Methane from livestock is recognised as being one of the issues, as is nitrous oxide from fertiliser­s and carbon dioxide from energy on farms.

“So we do have a big chunk of things to tackle like everybody else, but we have come a long, long way and many farms have taken large steps in terms of their management practices.”

On the issue of cutting meat consumptio­n, Ms Hopper says that while Scotland has a wide range of different types of land, most of it is not suitable for growing crops. “That means we’re predominan­tly a livestock producing country. We have loads of upland hill farms and lots of pasture and we’re great at growing forage. We do some arable and horticultu­re very well, but we do produce livestock brilliantl­y.

“Since switching to growing vegetables isn’t really feasible for us, we’d have to buy in massive amounts of food.

And at present about 98 per cent of the UK population still eats meat regularly.”

Simply taking out livestock would mean offshoring our emissions, she adds, and that would send our carbon output figures higher.

“We do have a responsibi­lity to make sure that the food we produce is of the highest environmen­tal standards. We have fantastic standards for animal health and welfare and we want to maintain those. Our rural communitie­s are really reliant on food production.”

Scotland Food & Drink, which promotes the sector and its products, considers that the industry has a moral and social responsibi­lity to do more.

John Davidson, its Deputy Chief Executive and Strategy Director, says: “Consumer decision making has undoubtedl­y changed in recent years when it comes to sustainabl­e food consumptio­n. People are increasing­ly interested in where their food comes from, how it is produced and the impact that their choices have on the world around them.

“Thankfully, Scotland’s producers are well placed to respond to this as we are already on our journey to net zero. Our manufactur­ers and farmers are now aligning with the shift in consumer demand by putting sustainabi­lity at the heart of their business strategies.

“Scotland is blessed with some of the highest quality sustainabl­e produce in the world, but we must continue to ensure the industry plays its role in tackling the climate crisis. Our recently launched Net Zero Commitment will help us to unite industry efforts and steer its journey to a net zero future, securing our place as a world-leader in climate friendly food production.

“When it comes to meat consumptio­n we need to focus on both quality and quantity while continuall­y investing in more sustainabl­e farming methods.”

There is another huge issue that needs to be addressed: that of food waste. This has multiple negative effects as any produce discarded costs not just in terms of the food lost but also the energy used to grow or create it, transport it and bring it to market.

Rotting food in landfill also produces methane, a greenhouse gas considered to be significan­tly more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.

A survey in 2013 revealed that nearly a million tonnes of food was wasted in this country annually. Across the world, this figure is now thought to be 1.3 billion tonnes, or a third of that produced for human consumptio­n.

Despite these shocking statistics, less than a quarter of businesses in the sector believe that waste is a significan­t contributo­r to climate change.

However, there is also good news in that, according to Zero Waste Scotland, 43 per cent of food and drink companies do now consider it to be one of their top priorities.

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of the organisati­on, says that throwing food away has a “devastatin­g impact” on the environmen­t and “should be taken as seriously as plastic waste”.

Kate Hopper at NFU Scotland also believes it is a massive issue. Related problems include the use of inappropri­ate fertiliser and the problem of nutrients being lost and wasted in the soil.

“We’re looking at how you drive inputs down in areas such as farm energy, plastics, clinical waste, oil, tyres and machinery. There is also the question of plastics and packaging. That needs to be addressed.

“A lot of food is having to be transporte­d down south for processing. For instance, we have potatoes from Aberdeen going down to Liverpool to be packaged and then brought back to be sold in supermarke­ts. It’s a bit of a scandal really that we’ve not got the resources to reduce that energy waste.”

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 ?? ?? Reducing Scotland’s livestock farming would be counterpro­ductive and actually create more carbon emissions, says Kate Hopper, Climate Change Policy Manager at the NFU Scotland, pictured below
Reducing Scotland’s livestock farming would be counterpro­ductive and actually create more carbon emissions, says Kate Hopper, Climate Change Policy Manager at the NFU Scotland, pictured below

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