EATING Scottish beef and lamb reared through nature friendly systems could help save the planet, according to SNP MSP Jim Fairlie.

Speaking as COP26 concludes, he said he is concerned premium Scots products are being “lumped in” with the “meat is bad” message which is gaining traction across the world.

With Boris Johnson joking in his inaugural COP26 address about cows “belching” on pastures, fears are growing within the Scottish red meat sector that the entire industry is being classed as a major culprit in the climate crisis.

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“One of the big problems we have is that people take the global emissions and lump them all together and what they are not doing is differentiating between pasture fed systems and intensive grain feed lots – they are two different worlds,” said Fairlie, whose background is farming.

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“As long as cattle and sheep are not overly intensively grazed, they are creating ecosystems within their own wee area and promoting grass growth so it is absorbing carbon the whole time. It is just incredibly frustrating that we continue to be lumped in to this big international ‘meat is bad’ message which is being promulgated just now.

“Scotch beef and lamb are premium products and the sector is recognised as being one of the best product systems on the planet, yet the irony is that we have a UK Government who say they support it, then talk about belching cows while importing beef and lamb from the other side of the world.”

He added: “We have to keep reminding people how special our beef and lamb is. I am not against the idea of eating less meat but buy better quality and go to your local butcher to buy it. If we eat Scottish beef and lamb we can help save the planet.”

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David McKay (above), head of policy in Scotland for the Soil Association, said it was disappointing there was so much emphasis on methane emissions and ruminants when the latter can actually provide a lot of benefit both to the soil and biodiversity.

“From the evidence we have I think it is safe to say grazing cattle can basically be carbon neutral,” he said. “If you take them all away where is the fertility going to come from to grow your veg? We would be reliant on chemical additives whereas animal manure feeds the soil and improves yields in the following crop.

“What we advocate is less but better meat – high welfare grass fed beef and lamb – but I don’t think that message is cutting through.”

He said the credentials of Scottish red meat could be improved still further by introducing even more environmentally friendly systems and better welfare.

“The Scottish beef brand is renowned throughout the world and that is a fantastic success story for Scotland but I think shifting to more high welfare and nature friendly systems of farming, such as organic or agroecological systems, would further benefit the green credentials of Scottish meat,” he said.

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“The EU farm to fork strategy aims for 25% organic farming across Europe by 2030 and that is something we would like to see the Scottish Government aspire to as an independent Scotland would presumably want to be back in the EU,” he said.

While organic farming yields can be lower than modern industrialised systems, recent research has shown that agro-ecological approaches to farming, including organic, could feed the European population while almost eliminating all artificial inputs such as polluting chemical fertilisers.

The recent Pastres report, funded by the European Research Council, has found that carbon sequestration can be significant in extensive systems with light grazing.

“Such systems may be in balance or seasonally negative, meaning that livestock here may not be net contributors to emissions,” said the report.

It also warned that abandoning livestock in favour of rewilding or land-sparing initiatives may not have the expected benefits.

“Tree planting, for example, may not be as beneficial as sustaining grasslands for carbon sequestration,” the report said.

Donald MacKinnon, vice-chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said the biodiversity and climate change challenge was far too important to be boiled down to “cheap soundbites” about cattle and red meat.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

He added that restoring peatland and planting new woodland would be necessary but there did not have to be a choice between sheep and peat or cattle and trees.