By DONALD MACKINNON, chairman of the Scottish Crofting Federation
With world leaders gathering in Glasgow for the COP26 summit, it is impossible to ignore the climate emergency and the grave situation we face.
We are told that this is one of the last opportunities to reach an agreement to reduce emissions before irreversible damage is done to the planet. It is crucial that there is international cooperation on this, only a combined global effort from all countries has a hope of coming close to tackling the problem.
Unilateral efforts will not work.
Agriculture has been constantly at the centre of the debate on emissions reduction in recent years and there is no doubt that it will continue to be a topic of discussion in the coming weeks. Of course, emissions from agriculture need to be reduced, as all sectors need to, but what can’t happen is for attacks on livestock farming to be the headline grabber of the summit.
The challenge we face is far too important to be boiled down to cheap sound bites about cattle and red meat.
I hope that there will be recognition that agriculture is part of the solution to the climate emergency and that continued livestock production is an important part of that solution.
Crofters are already doing a lot of good that needs to be encouraged.
Yes, there is a need for change in the sector and crofting can’t sit this one out but that change is achievable and I believe the industry is ready to make our contribution.
Many crofters already manage to produce quality livestock with minimal inputs of artificial fertilisers and bought in feeds, both helping to keep carbon emissions low. In addition these livestock help maintain some of our rarest and most important natural habitats.
However, as most of us produce store livestock we can’t ignore what happens when our animals leave the croft and go to finishers all over the UK.
We are reliant on an integrated agricultural system and the ability of these businesses to adapt and change how they operate will be critical to the future of livestock production in the Highlands and Islands.
As for what can be done on our side of the croft gate, the Hill, Upland and Crofting Group, set up by the previous Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, of which I was a member, came up with a series of recommendations.
Much of this work focussed on attempts to improve efficiency – this does not mean intensification or a move away from traditional practices but instead an attempt to get the same from less. Examples include improving livestock health and getting on top of endemic disease issues as well as getting better at managing parasite burdens.
Being more selective with breeding decisions and optimising production systems to suit land type are key.
Improved grassland management and soil sampling were also identified as being vital. Many crofters have been doing all of these things, and more, for years but there is always room to do more.
Tinkering with production methods, while important, will not go far enough to help meet our climate targets. Land use change led by crofters and other land managers will be crucial to delivering net zero.
Restoring peatland and planting new woodland will be necessary but we don’t have to choose between sheep and peat or cattle and trees.
Integrating livestock with these land uses could help achieve net zero alongside maintaining and increasing the biodiversity that only livestock can support. Focusing on carbon emissions alone will leave us in danger of neglecting the biodiversity crisis which is just as pressing an issue.
With land use change comes the attraction of ‘green finance’, and a responsible approach to this needs to be taken. Models that reward those who manage land well, not corporations trying to offset their own bad behaviour, should be promoted. Making sure that any action taken does lead to a real reduction in carbon in the atmosphere is essential.
In these efforts to reduce the carbon emissions of agriculture we cannot lose sight of the importance of food production.
Offshoring our food production to countries with dubious welfare and safety standards is not the answer. Being able to feed ourselves is vital and there is no doubt that local food networks and reducing food miles is a way we can reduce our carbon emissions.
Flying or shipping food that can be produced in this country halfway around the world surely isn’t a sensible approach. I have focussed on livestock in this column but it is of course important to mention the massive impact that the resurgence in growing fruit and vegetables can have in this space.
It is incredible the amount and variety of fresh local food that can be produced by enterprising crofters and growers.
World leaders need to get this right, agriculture cannot be used as a scapegoat but we will all have to do our bit to help achieve whatever agreement is reached in the coming weeks.
DONALD MACKINNON is the chairman of the Scottish Crofting Federation, which is dedicated to campaigning for crofters and fighting for the future of crofting