Farming for the future and food security

17 Mar 2022

The events in Ukraine are shocking and the ongoing acts of aggression against Ukraine and its people are truly terrible. The daily news images are clearly tragic. We all stand in solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine. 

The impact on global food production is another pressure on our planet, heaped upon the existential impacts of climate change and nature loss. Those crises have not gone away.  Scottish Environment LINK Food and Farming group members are deeply disappointed to see farming unions both in Scotland, and the UK, arguing for the lowering of environmental standards using the dubious pretext of food security.

These calls for the temporary suspension of greening rules, specifically around Ecological Focus Areas, so that more land can be made available for crop production are extremely troubling for three reasons:

  1. Cutting into the tiny amounts of land currently put aside for nature will not make any difference to the level of food production possible in Scotland
  2. Very little grain in Scotland goes directly into human food chains: most is used as animal feed or in the whisky industry. Wholescale change into different food crops would be required, not merely taking more land into current production.
  3. There is so little land put aside and managed for nature that continuing to chip away at the little that remains, puts Scotland even further back in its long journey towards halting the loss of nature. 

eNGOs across Europe are united in calling out this appropriation of land from green measures into production and what would amount to a rolling back on sustainable food policy objectives within the EU Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies. We stand with our colleagues in Birdlife International and their open letter, available here

 The arguments are flawed. Firstly, we know that almost 80% of our cereal harvest in Scotland is used for alcohol production or animal feed. Around two-thirds of the EU cereal harvest is used for animal feed or biofuel. Feeding grain to animals (even the most efficient ones) means converting 3 or 4 units of human edible calories or protein to 1 unit.  We can ‘afford’ to do this because there is no shortage of cereals.

 Secondly, we know that tackling the climate and nature emergency is the only way to ensure long-term food security.  The poor harvest in North America last year was caused by drought, while this was counterbalanced by good harvests in India and Australia.  As the climate becomes more chaotic, the risk of multiple harvest failures in different parts of the world increases.

 Finally, this is all based on the false premise that farming and nature are a zero-sum game. Scotland is committed to becoming a world leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.  The way forward – for Scotland, for Europe, and globally is farming with nature.

This means rewarding practices that deliver environmental benefit at very little or no cost to production. This would include buffer strips next to water courses for water quality for example, where fiddly pieces of ground with a negative gross margin have a disproportionate value for nature.  

The EFAs create safe corridors and essential food sources for iconic birds like barn owls and kestrels.Denise Walton, Peelham Farm

Lots of the EFA options like undersowing and catch crops can actually increase food production in the long run as well as improving the soil. Field margins also provide a home for the bugs which eat the bugs which eat the crops, so also help with sustainable food production.” Pete Ritchie, Nourish Scotland

The real lesson of this crisis is that we must look at the resilience of our food and farming systems.  More than ever, we must shift towards environmentally friendly farming practices, such as agroecology, organic farming, and agroforestry, which provide the only path to ensure long-term food security, food sovereignty, and the overall sustainability of food systems. 

Simply growing more grain and doubling down on unsustainable practices is not the answer. We need to think about the use and costs of nitrogen-based fertilisers and focus instead on the ways in which we can fix nitrogen naturally, and how we can use grass and food waste rather than wheat for animal feed. 

We should maintain and improve Ecological Focus Areas, not drop them. We should be adopting a strategic approach to land use, and the current atrocities in Ukraine should not be used as an excuse to undermine efforts to tackle the twin climate and nature emergencies.  

Thankfully, after a great deal of worry on the part of our members, we were somewhat relieved to hear Cabinet Secretary hold to the vision statement published last week and continue to support nature-friendly, climate-friendly farming in Scotland. She said “I want to make clear the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting farmers and crofters to meet more of our food needs, and to do so more sustainably. However, it is really important that we maintain and enhance nature and that we do not scale back our efforts in that regard. Events in Ukraine, tragic as they are, do not lessen the adverse global impacts on the climate and on biodiversity that we are facing. Indeed, they only strengthen the case for doing more because, ultimately, that is how we can make our farms and food production systems more resilient”. 

We agree. Now is not the time to add to the planet’s food insecurity and damage to ecosystem services that support us all. Now is the time to invest in resilient ecosystems able to produce food, and all the other services we depend on, thus increasing our own security and that of the planet.


Dr Deborah Long, Chief Officer, LINK

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