Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

Life once was simple and back in the day we only had lies, damn lies and statistics to contend with – but nowadays we have a whole plethora of academic and scientific reports to throw into the mix as well.

And it seems that far from providing us with a clear-cut 'science-led', yes or no answer, there is a spectrum of findings in any field of research – and if anyone looks long enough and hard enough, they are almost bound to find evidence to give some scientific validation to their own particular viewpoint or preconception.

Take for instance the big glyphosate debate which, despite the product’s interim re-licensing, rumbles on even yet. We continue to see various scientists from a range of world-renowned organisations, jam-packed with so-called experts in their fields, still managing to give sharply contrasting assessments of the chemistry’s safety.

So even science – which we so often fall back on in the belief that it will inevitably point the way to truth – often struggles to deliver a clear-cut definitive answer based on the cold, emotionless logic beloved of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. It all flies in the face of Robert Burns assertion that: 'Facts are chiels that winna ding.'

Given there's so much research now funded by commercial organisations, lobbying groups and organisations with a vested interest, it would appear that there will be individuals, or even entire establishments out there who can give an argument the gloss of academic rigour.

As last weekend’s Easter protests highlighted, climate change is an area which is rich in disparate views, some almost as extreme as the disrupted weather patterns predicted for the coming decades.

While the vast majority of scientists see man’s hand in global warming, there remains a hard-core of climate change deniers, many of whom claim that science is actually on their side – but there is also a huge and diverse range of solutions being put forward for countering humankind’s role in adding to the levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

But while the climate change protests probably didn’t impact too much on the farming sector, the same can’t be said for actual expected effects – and agriculture will inevitably find itself at the sharp end of any change to more extreme weather patterns.

Therefore, it would be fair to say that the farming industry has plenty of 'skin' in the game – and we’re perhaps more than likely to be keen to see steps taken to ensure our crops can be successfully, sown, grown and harvested without suffering devastation from climatic Armageddon.

The industry is duty bound to play its part in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the tightening up on efficiencies and reducing reliance on fossil fuel derived inputs has undoubtedly gone some way to doing so.

But the sad fact is that more still needs to be done – and while agriculture and its allied industries certainly aren’t alone in struggling to come to terms with the fact that more needs to be done, there are plenty of organisations and government agencies out there keen to tell us how we could do this.

The cropping sector draws some criticism for the release of nitrous oxides from fertilisers, but it would be fair to say that a lot of focus has been on the livestock boys – where the tendency of cows and sheep to belch out methane has seen them firmly thrust into the firing line.

While some might think that the fate of this sector isn’t entirely relevant to the arable pages, it’s worth remembering that close to half of the crops which we grow are destined to feed animals in one form or another.

Last week saw QMS launch a spirited defence of UK red meat production, arguing that the tactics being used by some anti-meat lobbies to discredit the industry’s sustainability credentials didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The country’s focus on grazing and grass-based diets means that many of the frequently rolled-out criticisms which are modelled on intensively produced meat simply don’t apply to Scottish beef and lamb – as we don’t use feed-lot systems or extremely high levels of concentrates.

The fact that 85% of the country can only grow one thing – grass – means that it would be madness to leave this land idle.

QMS also argued that the livestock industry’s true carbon footprint is massively over-inflated as no proper account is given of the huge amounts of carbon sequestered in these hills, uplands and grasslands. And if these figures were added to the equation – as they should be in order to give a true picture – they would go a long way to offsetting any nett green house gas emissions from the gentle burps of the livestock industry.

But the press coverage of this story lead me to an intriguing conversation with a lady of the vegan persuasion – who adamantly pointed me in the direction of a freshly published report outlining the benefits which doing away with livestock production would have on the UK’s chance of fulfilling its climate change mitigation commitments.

Entitled 'Eating away at climate change with negative emissions – repurposing UK agricultural land to meet climate goals', the report looks at the effects which putting grazing land and the estimated 50% of UK cropping land which goes towards animal feeds down to other uses.

Now the report was written up by people with the requisite large number of letters after their name and contained a suitably fulsome list of scientific references.

As seems to be fashionable, the report looked at two scenarios. One saw all land used for livestock – including the 50% of arable area currently used for growing fodder and forage – put down to forestry to sequester carbon and the other where all arable land was put over to growing crops for feeding direct to humans.

So, under my reading of the report, while the first scenario would immediately condemn around 92% of Scotland’s farmland to be covered with trees, the second would let us off with a mere 85% of the country.

While the arable sector might not be as badly hit as the livestock sector under such a radical restructuring of UK agriculture, it would be a huge job to refocus the 50% away from producing animal feeds.

Now the authors of the report would appear to have looked into the issue in great detail. However, I guess they might have been a step ahead of me and factored in some climatic change taking place in the UK, the fact that they didn’t seem to realise that there were any major limitations to growing crops such as chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, eggplants and sweet potato in the UK – let alone the limitations of Scotland’s climate, terrain and soils – led me to think it might be worth checking which scientific establishment they worked for.

My suspicions that it wasn’t the SRUC, or the James Hutton Institute proved correct – nor were Rothamsted or the John Innes Centre involved – or even any of the trendier London-based economic establishments.

In fact, the report was drawn up with fellowship support from the Animal Law and Policy Program at the Harvard Law School in the US – an establishment which prides itself in being a leading advocate for giving animals the same sort of rights as their human counterparts.

And while they are undoubtedly as entitled to their own opinion as any other group, I couldn’t help but imagine Mr Spock stating: “Its science Jim – but not as we know it.”