As the impact of the climate emergency grows more severe, the push for sustainability is crucial but recent moves by Edinburgh City Council have prompted concern among industry leaders.

Earlier this month, the local authority has become the first European capital to endorse the Plant Based Treaty, launched during Cop26, which calls for a shift towards less meat and dairy consumption.

However, Scottish rural groups have voiced concern that the decision did not take in “balanced, fair evidence”.

“The single biggest thing that we could do in terms of sustainability over economies is move to sustainably produced local food and drink products, which in Scotland means grass-fed beef, lamb and pork”, chief executive of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Sarah Miller said.

“We are the home of a global livestock industry.”

Speaking on the move by the council, David Bean of the Countryside Alliance said: “I would say they are misunderstanding farming as it is conducted across Scotland as a whole.”

The treaty itself includes pledges to prevent the building of new animal farms, and slaughterhouses as well as the promotion of plant-based foods and an active transition from the consumption of animal products.

But an impact assessment report conducted before the treaty was endorsed suggests that many parts of the pledge “cannot be implemented due to a lack of power” or are “not relevant in the Edinburgh context”.

What does the treaty mean for Edinburgh?

The Plant-Based Treaty is modelled on the Fossil Fuel Treaty which was endorsed by Edinburgh City Council in March 2022.

“Declaring a Plant-based treaty endorsement is similar to declaring a climate emergency,” the report states.

It is intended to “acknowledge” that food systems are the main driver of the climate emergency and suggest that plant-based diets could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meat and dairy make up an estimated 12 per cent of the local authority’s consumption-based carbon footprint, with other food and drink making up 11%, the report adds.

The council noted plans to introduce meat-free days in other council-run buildings, with Edinburgh secondary schools already doing so one day a week.

Signing up for the treaty creates an “expectation that a clearer pathway for fully transitioning to plant-based meals is set out”, the assessment report adds.

However, many parts of the treaty will not be possible for the local authority. Its current Local Development Plan, and the emerging City Plan expected to replace it, would not make it possible to ban new animal farms, slaughterhouses or the conversion of land for the use of livestock.

In planning, agriculture is considered a single category of land use and the council does not have powers to determine how the land should be used within the category.

Other parts of the treaty including banning land use change or deforestation for livestock farming are seen as having “minimal implications” as the council largely covers an urban area.

Other than carbon footprint estimates, the report only refers to a global IPCC report published in April 2022 – which stated that food systems account for 42% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Is a transition of this kind viable in Scotland?

But the QMS chief executive emphasised that more evidence used should have been Scotland-specific.

“The truth is none of us as stakeholder organizations who work actively in Scotland's food system had been approached to help shape that motion or to shape the evidence base, which I think is the most damaging thing,” she said.

“When you look back, it just didn't feel that that evidence base had been presented in a balanced way.”

She emphasised that Scotland had the climate and resource base most suitable to animal husbandry.

Large areas of Scotland are designated as less favoured areas (LFA) with limited capability of supporting vegetables, fruit and cereal farming for human use, according to a 2021 Scottish Government report.

The Scottish Farmer:

This type of land, which accounts for 86% of Scotland’s total land mass, can be used for livestock agriculture.

Cattle and sheep farms on these LFA make up over half of all of Scotland’s 5.7 million hectares of agricultural land.

David Bean, parliament and government relations manager for Countryside Alliance, said: “It's simply not the case that you could give over all of the land that is being used to produce livestock over to arable farms. It’s just impossible.

“It means it's only really suitable for farming, depending on the location, some combination of cattle and sheep.

“You can’t just say let’s stop doing that and give it over to crop production because the crops won’t grow there.”

Meanwhile, Ms Miller also raised concerns about ensuring Scots receive key nutrients referencing research by professor of cardiovascular pharmacology Alice Stanton.

Her studies have previously emphasised that plant-based foods have experienced a 50% drop in vitamins and key electrolytes over the past 50 years.

Ms Miller claimed: “In terms of the healthy balanced diet because that's what it's all about, I think what we would always say is we would never want to see any food group pinned against each other.

“What it comes down to is here in Scotland we can produce really well grass-based beef, lamb and pork that is what is good for the Scottish population at large. “It is all about on that plate having a balance of healthy sustainable protein, vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates as well.”

She added that the treaty encouraging the idea that sustainability and livestock farming are opposites was a “primary concern”.

“One of the big projects we're working on at QMS at the moment is on the Scottish red meat industry net zero and nature restoration roadmap,” the chief executive said.

“We want to commit to meeting the targets as set out, because we're very proud of our record in terms of what we do and how we produce red meat.“

Moving towards sustainability


Sustainability does pose a pressing issue not just for farmers across the globe - but changes can take place in different ways other than a switch to plant-based systems. 

Researchers studying the adoption of agroecological principles in Scotland for The James Hutton Institute were “surprised to see how many farmers were fully aware of the need of changing their food system”.

“A lot of them that we had spoken to were willing to change even ahead of any subsidies or economic support,” said Luz-Maria Lozada.

Agroecology, a term popularised by the United Nations, is considered to be “a practice, a movement and a science” revolving around sustainable farming that works with nature and can include organic farming, integrated farming, agroforestry, aspects of livestock management and other practices.

“In our study, we use agroecology as a practice - it is farming systems that enhance natural systems, and also include the social and economic dimension of farming,” she added.

Fellow researcher Alison Karley said: “The challenges that agriculture faces in Scotland and, in fact, globally, is that it's very reliant on resources that are either declining in supply, phosphate fertilizers, or have a big carbon footprint.

“It’s also associated with environmental impacts, biodiversity losses, and so on. Farmers in Scotland are surrounded by these issues.”

Monocultures and a lack of diversity in agricultural systems were also emphasised as issues which are not only less environmentally sound but also make them more vulnerable to changes.

Dr Karley adds: “I think another issue to keep in mind in terms of the food system as it is in Scotland, the UK and a lot of other European westernized countries is that a lot of the carbon footprint that comes from food production is associated with its transport.

“One of the elements that agroecology promotes we've already touched on diversifying what's grown and produced, but also local production and consumption is a big part of that.”

Crucially, the researchers emphasise that the push for sustainability cannot be divisive.

“Agroecology isn’t divisive at all,” Dr Karley said. “In terms of the way that we talk about it with farmers and other people involved in farming, it has to be interpreted in a way that is relevant to them and they see it can apply to all of them.”

Dr Lozada emphasised that even farmers that saw themselves as “conventional” were implementing farming  practices that can be classed as agroecological.

The Countryside Alliance argued that the Plant-Based Treaty felt like a “slap in the face” to the rural community striving to improve the viability of their practices.

“I think we've seen tremendous success in the way that we have been able to develop our standards in Scotland and across the UK as a whole,” Mr Bean added.

Speaking on efforts to lower the carbon impact of livestock, Ms Miller of QMS, added: “It’s continual improvement, there's always more things that we can do, but there’s no doubt there are really challenging economic headwinds, particularly at farm level.”

“My biggest worry is that those headwinds could do more harm for the environment by removing livestock.

“I suppose why I am saying that is that the supply chain are really at this point in time looking for positive investment in the future for what they do.”