As various educational premises across the country decided to ban animal produce, some students fought against it. Mollie Leach speaks to those at the forefront of the fight.
The agricultural sector has borne the brunt of a flurry of misinformation about its impact on climate change in recent times.
False statistics, which bolster spurious claims, have been circulated by national media reports, causing irresponsible and often knee-jerk responses to tackling global warming.
For example, take the string of attempted ‘beef bans’ proposed by a number of higher educational institutions.
Last year, students from the University of East Anglia, and Goldsmiths, University of London, voted to cease the sale of all beef products in student catering outlets, and Edinburgh University recently became the next body to join the anti-meat campaign.
Calls to carry over the motion in favour of the beef ban were backed by statistics from sources such as the BBC and anti-farming activist George Monbiot.
And while it was encouraging to see 58 per cent of some 6,000 students at Edinburgh University reject this motion, it highlighted the present fight beef farmers face.
Sarah Whitelaw, a veterinary student at Edinburgh University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, is passionate about highlighting the sustainability of British farming and against the ban.
She says: “New innovations and technologies are being utilised in modern farming in an effort to reduce agriculture’s impact on climate change, from livestock excretion to machinery fuel consumption.
“If people were more educated in how sustainable British farming has become, I think much of the public would look to other industries when playing the blame game.”
According to the Committee on Climate Change, about 65 per cent of UK farmland is best suited to growing grass and emissions from UK beef production are about half the global average.
Sarah says: “In terms of welfare standards, regulations and quality, British agriculture is a league ahead.
“I grew up in rural Lanarkshire and I have been surrounded by the farming community from a young age.
“I lambed my first sheep aged 11, a set of twins, one of which was stillborn, a crude but educational introduction to the industry.
“Since then, I have been fascinated by agriculture and have experienced all manner of sheep work, relief milkings, rousied for a shearing season and tried my hand baling and carting silage.
“Working on the university dairy farm, Langhill Farm, was pivotal in showing us the ‘gold standard’ in animal welfare."
Speaking of the nutritional benefits of red meat, Judith Buttriss, general director at the British Nutrition Foundation, says: “Red meat is a nutrient-dense food consumed by most of us in the UK, contributing to intakes of a variety of essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
“Those who choose to cut down on red meat need to make sure they acquire adequate amounts of these nutrients via other foods, but it should not be assumed alternatives to meat will provide the essential nutrients present in meat in equal measure.”
“In our pre-clinical placement, which demonstrated how animals are cared for, we learned about different welfare standards and strategies.
I am learning first-hand how to advise farmers on better practice.” John McCulloch, a student at Scotland’s Rural College, also took it upon himself to try and tackle such claims.
Joined by a cohort of Scottish farm groups, collectively they wrote a letter to the university, in a bid to reinforce the high environmental standards, which underpin Scottish red meat production.
He says: “The letter was an important way of garnering more traction, as it collaborated leading farm groups and organisations in an industry-wide approach.
Importantly, it busted a lot of myths about red meat production.” It was said the ban would help ‘reduce the carbon footprint’, but the letter reiterated the role of Scottish grassland in mitigating climate change, stating rather that ‘[it] acts as a carbon sink and grazing animals provide habitats for wildlife and help to maintain the landscape’.
Both students believe a widespread educational campaign is needed to tackle this problem.
Sarah says: “It is devastating an industry so integral to our country is being tarred by unreliable sources and by people who have no insight or experience in British farming.”
John says the industry needs to ‘do more’ to educate the public in demonstrating how the UK is a leader in sustainable red meat production, compared to other countries.
The call follows wider industry action to dispel myths around livestock farming.
The NFU recently provided ‘myth-busting’ fact sheets at its conference on February 25 to help farmers tackle misunderstanding about the sector.
This included information such as the fact Scotland has an abundant, natural fresh water supply, producing quality beef from grass and rough grazing, which makes up about 80 per cent of Scotland’s agricultural land.
But consumer awareness is also key, says Sarah, and it will help if people are made aware that by buying sustainable, local meat and vegetables, they are helping tackle climate change.
Prior to the closure of higher education institutions after the Government announced its lockdown measures, beef products had continued to be sold in Edinburgh University student cafes and restaurants.
And while John and Sarah feel the overturning of this red meat ban should be celebrated, they say the challenges presented in recent weeks have highlighted the fight for British agriculture remains.
John says: “As the proposed beef ban demonstrated, the agricultural industry has been an easy target of environmental campaigners for a long time.
"However, recent events with Covid-19 and the subsequent reduction of air travel and transport in general, have seen a huge reduction in emissions.
“As farmers continue to work flat out to feed the nation, this clearly demonstrates agriculture is part of the solution to the problem.
“This is the time to act. We should come out the other side of this pandemic buying local and buying British, always.
“Farmers, now more than ever, need support from consumers who have relied on them for years.”
Covid-19, Sarah says, has also put a spotlight on agriculture’s ‘exaggerated’ contribution to climate change.
She says: “In a time where emissions from agriculture are high, with ploughing, power harrowing and seeding for spring crops, fertilising, rolling and the start of silage, among other things, a huge amount of fuel is being consumed.
“Blissfully unaware of the impact of Covid-19, livestock continues eating forage and defecating as would be expected, yet we hear in the news of national pollution levels significantly decreasing.
“If transport and aviation damage to the environment has dropped as considerably as news reports are suggesting, surely this attack on red meat is incredibly misplaced.
“Alternatively, we should be encouraging people to walk, cycle or car-share in their daily lives.”
She says: “By paying a little more for produce from their local butchers or milk round, people are supporting animal welfare and doing their bit for climate change by not purchasing imported meat from European or animal feeding operation systems, where standards are lower and transportation emissions are significant.
“People need to be aware of how pivotal, beneficial and progressive agriculture is to our countryside, our health and our climate.” While it may seem like there is a continuous barrage of anti-farming propaganda, only about 5 per cent of the population is vegetarian and fewer are vegan.
Sarah says: “I think the press and the media should be regulated more in what it can publish.
“We need to educate people on different farming systems, protocols and standards.
“In the UK, we have a completely different standard of protocol inspection, which deviates from other parts of the world. This is something we need to make people aware of.”