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A survey conducted by agriculture transition group Stockfree Farming asked 51 farmers from across Scotland a series of questions over a 12-month period between 2021 and 2022 about their willingness to shift to more planet-friendly farming methods.
The majority (64%) of respondents with pasture or rough grazing land claimed they are willing to entirely move away from livestock. In its place, they would pursue carbon capture farming, if the financial support to do so was in place.
Additionally, 86% of respondents claimed they are willing to adapt their farming style to help the climate crisis.
As a result of its surveys and interviews, the group discovered that Scottish farmers are more open to agricultural transition than previously assumed.
The case for more plant-based farming
With food security and sustainability increasingly major concerns for British farmers and consumers, industry bodies are advocating for reform in the sector.
As Vicki Hird, head of the sustainable farming campaign at Sustain, explained, “The role of livestock in a sustainable farming and food system needs care.
“We know now that we rear and eat far too much meat as a result of a huge shift to industrial, high-intensity livestock systems and that has not been good for health, the land and environment or the incomes of sustainable, high welfare farmers.
“Supporting farmers to transition to more plant-based or carbon farming is one route as is biodiverse, full pasture systems and agropasture where animals and trees are farmed together with many public benefits as well as welfare and food outcomes. We need a careful land use strategy that delivers a range of outcomes and multifunctionality from the land – from climate mitigation and adaptation to high welfare and nutritionally rich foods.”
David McKay, head of policy for Scotland at the Soil Association, added, “We believe that to fix our broken food and farming system we need a widescale transition to agroecological practices and a corresponding shift to healthier and more sustainable diets to address the climate, nature and health crises.
“This adds up to a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses and legumes and high-quality meat farmed in a way that supports nature, such as organic and pasture-fed livestock.”
Shift to nature-friendly farming
But campaigners argue that the most important shift needed is not away from livestock farming, it’s to agroecological practices.
According to David, “There are a growing number of farmers and crofters in Scotland who are interested in agroecological or nature-friendly farming, which is the most evidenced way of meeting Scotland’s climate and nature targets by reducing emissions and increasing biodiversity on farm. The Soil Association’s vision for the future of food and farming includes a key role for ruminant livestock.
“Agroecological farming systems seek to minimise synthetic inputs while building soil health and fertility by cultivating diversity across the farm system. Livestock, especially grazing and browsing animals, can play an important role in the system.
“As grazers in rotation systems, ruminant animals can convert the grass to food whilst helping to build healthy, living soils, avoiding the need to use high-energy synthetic fertilisers or mechanical mowing.
“This will result in far lower volumes of livestock and a complete shift from intensive livestock production, however, there is a role for pasture-fed livestock which can enable low-impact food production on land which may not be suitable for cropping.
“Positive government action is essential to encourage and support a widescale shift in diets while providing the legislative framework and financial support to help more farmers transition to agroecological systems of production together with an active route map for farmers who want to change livestock practices.”