Consumer expectations in terms of the food we eat have transformed in recent years. People – especially the younger generation - are more likely to want to know where their food has come from, how it has been processed, and whether it will have a negative impact on the environment.

Much has been said about a vegan diet being good for the planet, and we’re regularly bombarded with messaging that aims to persuade us to eat less meat. Indeed, just a couple of generations ago, when our fruit and veg was locally-grown and in season, the environmental case for a plant-based diet would have been clear-cut.

But nowadays, consumers are used to eating what they like, rather than what the Scottish climate can necessarily provide.  We want strawberries all year round, so retailers import these and other foodstuffs from abroad during the winter. 

And that’s when the environmental picture becomes much more muddled. It’s harder to work out how the carbon footprint of flying in exotic produce such as sweet potatoes and quinoa compares to eating Scottish meat from the farm a couple of miles down the road.

With global food miles – the distance travelled by food products from production to consumption - accounting for nearly a fifth of all food-systems emissions -  the importance of eating local produce has arguably never been greater.

During the Covid restrictions, many people ate more locally because, to an extent, they were forced to. Some buyers found their local farm shop or butcher for the first time, realised they were not prohibitively expensive and preferred the produce. Slowly but surely things are creeping back to normal – although people who live in rural areas are still more likely than those in towns and cities to buy and eat locally.

As well as reducing food miles, there are other clear benefits to buying locally produced food, like supporting Scottish farmers during challenging economic times. The cost of living has been at the forefront of the farming community’s mind for the past few years. Supermarkets may be hiking prices, but they’re not necessarily sharing that income with farmers - and there’s not much certainty in terms of support from the government.

Eating locally produced food rather than produce that has travelled halfway round the world also reduces food waste and uses less packaging. It can also help strengthens bonds within communities, sparking conversations between shops, restaurants and local suppliers.

It’s true to say that quality local produce comes at a cost, and price is always an important consideration for consumers. But research demonstrates that locally produced food can remain attractive if it delivers on quality, taste, sustainability and ethics.

According to a 2023 survey by The Knowledge Bank – the research arm of Scotland Food and Drink - 60% of Scottish consumers said they were willing to pay more for some types of food produced in Scotland – particularly game, seafood and red meat.

In the same research, 66% of respondents cited supporting local producers as a reason to buy local produce, while 48% did so because they thought the quality was better.

Scottish beef, for example, is world-renowned for its quality and sustainability credentials. And, thanks to the Quality Meat Scotland website, you can trace your meat right back to the farmer, ensuring it ticks all the right boxes in terms of animal welfare. When buying local, such as at a farmer’s market, you can also talk to the producer directly about the origin of food and production methods.

It’s great to see initiatives like the Galloway Food Hub, a social enterprise that aims to give better access to local food by creating a hyper-local food chain, springing up. They’ve even set up an online shop, where people can buy wool and candles along with their fruit, vegetables and meat.

Going back to the vegan vs omnivore diet debate, for me the question is this: when you look at the bigger picture, is persuading meat lovers to switch to ethical, sustainable, locally-reared meat perhaps a more realistic goal than promoting giving up meat entirely?

By Karen Craig, specialist in rural law at Anderson Strathern