Two Crises – Four Solutions

A Letter to the Scottish Government

by Rebecca Knowles, 24 May 2020

Two weeks ago, in a Covid-19 briefing, the First Minister said that the decisions we take now concerning lockdown are a matter of life and death. I could not agree more.

However, had the warnings been heeded, and there have been many, we would not be in the unhappy position of trying to outsmart our own demise.

Turn the clock back to 2004, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Organisation for Animal Health listed our “increasing demand for animal protein” as one of the main risk factors for the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases.

In 2006, the Journal of Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases reported on the “close contact between humans and food animals” that leads to severe respiratory infections with pandemic potential such as avian influenza and SARS.

In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that our increasing demand for livestock products, leading to more intensive production, has increased our risk for zoonotic disease transmission. When animals are bred for fast and high yields, they lack the genetic diversity to resist disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals”.

Current scientific narratives draw the same conclusion: intensive farming is a breeding ground for pandemics.

Updated figures for 2019 show that eighty-four percent of farmed animals in the UK are housed in intensive farms. Scotland currently has 84 facilities – the number rising by ten percent since 2017.

According to UNEP, out of the six major zoonotic disease events that have impacted our country since 1940, the top three involved poultry, pigs, and cattle as intermediary hosts.

UNEP goes on to say, “logic and experience suggest that zoonoses can be best tackled through interventions involving the livestock hosts of the disease pathogens”.

Logic begets the question:

Animal products are non-essential so why are we putting lives at risk for them?

Recent experience states unequivocally:

We must transform the global food system and work towards ending animal agriculture”.

I would like to believe that the Government, whom my vote and taxes support, is unafraid to employ logic. I would also like to think that they listen to the lessons of experience.

Recent administrative tactics, however, have made me fear otherwise. The current ‘Make It campaign promoting red meat consumption through the Government’s public body, Quality Meat Scotland, coupled with £1 million in funding for the Milk Your Moments dairy campaign, show that we are going in completely the wrong direction: propping up the very industries that got us into this mess.

Meanwhile, outbreaks of highly pathogenic and much more deadly H5 avian influenza have been occurring in European poultry units since the end of last year. The next pandemic is brewing.

The Other Crisis

Covid-19 has temporarily overshadowed an even more devastating predicament – the climate crisis. Here, also, the Government’s actions tell us they are not taking the emergency seriously.

By sector, agriculture and related land-use comprise almost a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to Keith McWhinnie, the Scottish Government’s Lead Policy Officer on Agricultural Climate Change, and based upon the mitigation actions set forth in the current climate change plan, all future projections and modelling show agriculture becoming the single largest emitting sector.

By food group, red meat (beef, lamb and pork), and dairy are the top two highest emitters of greenhouse gases per person in Scotland.

When analysed across five environmental factors (greenhouse gas emissions, land use, fossil fuel energy use, eutrophication-potential and acidification-potential), ruminant meat has impacts 20-100 times greater than plant-based foods. Dairy, eggs, pork, poultry, and seafood have impacts 2-25 times higher than plants per kilocalorie of food produced.

For the Scottish Government, on the one hand, to have declared a climate emergency and, on the other, to be promoting meat and dairy is a duplicitous defiance of both science and logic.

A Four-Step Solution

The following steps provide solutions and preventative measures for both the pandemic and the climate crisis. They also permit the Government to join-up supportive policies across agriculture and rural economies, public health, food, climate change mitigation, biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration.

Invest in innovative protein alternatives

A recent study published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy shows that the road to economic recovery from Covid-19 will necessitate government spending on innovative, low carbon, environmentally beneficial initiatives rather than trying to salvage traditional industries, such as animal agriculture, that not only ignore the climate crisis but also pose massive threats to public health.

In their report entitled Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030, independent think tank, RethinkX, describes an advancement in biotechnology that creates high quality protein from micro-organisms (fungi, algae, protozoa).

The report states that this protein will be superior to animal proteins in every way: “more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety”. Manufacturing will use a fraction of the land, water, energy, time, and feedstock of conventional animal protein and cause emissions from the sector to drop by sixty-five percent by 2035.

RethinkX predict that as early as 2030 these proteins will be five times cheaper than existing animal proteins, causing a drop in demand for beef and dairy by fifty percent, with other livestock markets following suit.

The production process, called precision fermentation, will mean that anywhere we can brew beer, we will be able to make protein. Although job losses will obviously occur in the livestock and associated industries, RethinkX predicts that, in the US alone, precision fermentation will generate one million new jobs by 2035.

I urge the Government to read the RethinkX report and find one good reason not to explore this further.

Use all existing cropland to grow crops for human consumption

Currently, half of Scotland’s cropland is being used to grow animal feed. This includes over fifty percent of cereals and more than half of the vegetables grown on Scottish farms.

A 2019, UK-based study by Harvard Law School found that if we use all current cropland in the UK to grow crops for human consumption, we can more than provide for the recommended calories, protein and nutrients for every person in the UK. 

This would boost our food self-sufficiency, food security, and generate new jobs.

Restore all grazing land to native forest and ecosystems

Repurposing and restoring all land currently classed as rough grazing or permanent pasture in Scotland to native forest and indigenous ecosystems would remove 1,052 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – the equivalent to offsetting more than 35.5 years of total current Scottish CO2 emissions!

Farmers must be subsidised to do this vitally important work of farming carbon capture which will not only help achieve our climate mitigation goals, but also provide huge wins for biodiversity and rewilding.

Restoring ecosystems and boosting biodiversity has the added advantage of forming a natural barrier against disease.

When nature is destroyed – as in land-use change for animal agriculture – the species that survive are those that are best at transmitting disease.

Support Farmers in Diversification Initiatives

Alongside the above changes, and in order to further boost rural economies, farmers should be provided with professional advice and grant funding to assist with diversification into non-traditional agricultural activities. 

Examples of diversification include activities related to tourism such as camping, glamping or Airbnb; repurposing outbuildings to grow mushrooms or renting them out for storage space or special events; and promoting the use of one’s land for anything from grass-sledging to music festivals.

A 2019 Scottish Government report found that farmers who diversify into non-traditional farm use have incomes that average £19,600 per year higher than farmers that don’t.  Quite an incentive!

According to NFU Mutual’s Diversification Report (2020), sixty-five percent of farmers in England have already diversified with a total additional income of £740 million in 2018-2019.


As we emerge from this pandemic, trying to resuscitate business-as-usual in the agricultural sector will be a grave mistake.

The public are already receiving and acting upon the messages in this letter. A survey by supermarket giant, Waitrose, found that one in three Brits have stopped or reduced their meat consumption. The consumer research group, Finder, predict that 12 million people in the UK will be meat-free by the end of 2020. Sainsbury’s, in their Future of Food Report, predict that vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the UK population by 2025.

I am aware that the Government does not typically engage in the business of telling people what to produce or consume but, at times such as these, as in the case of lockdown, we rely on our policy-makers to tell us what to do; to make decisions to save our lives, now and in the future; to be, literally, our leaders.

As with the lockdown, the decisions taken now, about agriculture and food, are a matter of life and death.

Helping Farmers Thrive in a Changing World

2 thoughts on “Two Crises – Four Solutions: A Letter to the Scottish Government”

  1. Bernard Elliott

    This is a very interesting article. I will have to come back to it so as to garner more indepth information. One of the main problems that we have in transitioning to a plant based food source is the counter culture of fast food outlets. We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements which encourages people to eat meat. This culture is so powerful that governments do not want to go up against it. Governments have to start subsidising plant based companies to a greater extent and Governments have to limit the number of adverts promoting fast food. This would help with our society transitioning to Plant Based Food.

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