Murray MacLeod: Shop local, and stop blaming the cows!

Do cows contribute to climate change?

MURRAY MACLEOD, on crofting

As we look forward to returning to some sense of normality, it will be interesting to see what elements of this crisis will actually lead to fundamental changes in the way we live our lives.

It may feel a distant memory now, but cast your mind back to the start of lockdown.

Remember the empty shelves? Remember the rationed milk?

Irresponsible and unnecessary panic-buying was certainly a large part of it, but it also served to highlight how we had become slaves to convenience.

Where the large supermarkets struggled to cope, up stepped the small retailers.

Your butcher, your baker, the wee petrol station up the road – all of a sudden they became invaluable in terms of putting food on the table.

They were able to do so because, unlike the supermarket chains, they do not rely on mass marketing and mass consumerism.

Personal contact and putting the needs of the individual customer first is their strength.

But, while the crisis helped elevate the role of the independent retailer, I’m not so sure it will actually lead to lasting change.

After all, human behaviour is predictable – we tend to go back to what we know.

And what we’ve known, certainly for most of us, is the ultimate convenience of the large supermarket.

It will take a complete re-evaluation of our priorities for that to change.

Of course, convenience is beneficial and there will always be a place for the supermarket. But what of other aspects?

What of community resilience, something I suspect will barely register as a priority for most us when deciding on our weekly shop?

It may be the case that more people will try and grow more of their own food and local produce will, hopefully, be in greater demand.

All very welcome. But what’s really needed is a completely fresh approach to our behaviour as consumers.

As the pound in our pocket becomes ever more stretched we need to value it in terms of what benefit it can bring to the wider collective – who can it support, what should it support and how can that can bring about greater resilience within our own communities.

It’s not radical or revolutionary. It’s just about taking a bit more time and effort to think about where best to spend our cash, especially when it comes to our most basic of needs.

It can’t possibly make sense to get your Sunday roast from the supermarket if the same cut of meat is available at your local butcher at a comparable price (in my experience it invariably is). And especially if that butcher has sourced his meat from the crofter down the road.

It takes a bit of extra effort to call in at the butcher, for sure, but add in important elements like food miles and provenance and there really is no excuse, except for our own inherent laziness.

It has always amazed me how there is any fish at all on the shelves of supermarkets in this part of the world when the local fishmongers offer far higher quality at a lower price.

And, in any case, it’s now perfectly possible to buy direct from the fisherman, with many of them now offering sales to the public.

That may have come about through the closure of their overseas markets during lockdown, but what better example of necessity being the mother of invention.

If west-coast prawns were coveted by sophisticated palates on the Mediterranean, then they should be more than adequate for consumption a bit closer to home.

It’s not that long ago that our communities were completely self-reliant in food.

We do demand a more discerning choice these days – no-one would want to return to a diet made up entirely of fish, mutton and potatoes.

But, with an abundance of quality produce on our own doorstep, surely it makes sense to take more advantage of that and in the process create greater community resilience through sourcing from independent, local retailers.

If there’s a downside to that approach, I fail to see it.

ONE aspect that looks certain to change, certainly for the foreseeable, is that there will be less air travel.

Through the lockdown it is estimated that carbon emissions have been reduced by over 30 per cent by planes being grounded alone.

That’s not even taking account of reductions in car journeys and it is a staggering figure from just one simple change.

There are certain elements in the environmental lobby who would have you believe that methane emissions from cattle make a significant contribution to climate change.

Never mind that bovines (bison, buffalo as well as cows) have roamed the land for thousands of years without causing much harm.

Never mind that it’s only the last 30 or 40 years, as our economy became ever reliant on fossil fuels, that the damage to our planet has been made.

The reduction in air travel will be for economic, more than environmental, reasons.

But the staggering statistics of these last few months should at least mean that when it comes to a real determination in tackling environmental damage the finger of blame will be pointed in the right direction.

Then again, maybe cows are a much easier target.

MURRAY MACLEOD is a journalist and crofter who lives in Lewis