OFFSHORING our carbon footprint in the midst of a climate emergency is the last thing Scotland wants to be doing, so it is time to start thinking more wisely about our food choices.

This past weekend I took part in a debate organised by Edinburgh University’s Conscious Change Society, arguing for the motion “A diet including Scottish livestock products can be more sustainable and ethical than veganism”.

The argument made that Scotland’s farmers should stop raising livestock for meat production and instead turn all our grazing land over to arable production, wildflower meadows and forests is utter nonsense.

There are a number of fundamental flaws in this argument. One being that 98 per cent of British households consume meat and even if livestock production were to stop, demand for meat would not. This demand would have to be met by importing meat from abroad which wouldn’t sit well with our ambitious climate change targets, nor with the fact that we would have no say over the animal welfare standards in which these animals are reared and slaughtered.

Secondly, over 80% of Scottish farmland is not suitable for growing cereals and vegetables – due to the topography and nature of our terrain – but is perfectly suited to grazing livestock, which can turn rough grassland into delicious, nutrient-dense protein. A much higher demand for a vegan diet could not be met by local Scottish farming systems and would lead to higher dependency on imports.

Read more: Don't let the 'good life' lead to a global pandemic

Thirdly, the suggestion of removing livestock from our lands fails to recognise the invaluable role grazing ruminants play in sequestering carbon in the soil – preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. Grazing livestock is also critical for building back organic matter into our soils, restoring wildlife habitats, and boosting biodiversity. RSPB and other nature organisations have stated that grazing animals are essential for sustaining healthy wildlife populations.

Fourthly, Scottish livestock farmers play an invaluable role in looking after our iconic landscapes, which all of us have been enjoying more than ever over the last year. With international flights grounded, Scotland’s hills and upland areas have been "re-found" by many… and enjoyed. What they have been enjoying is some of the most beautiful vistas in the world – but they are not wild landscapes. They are preserved and managed by countryside custodians grazing their livestock.

Lastly, livestock farming plays a crucial role in supporting rural areas and the most fragile communities – keeping the flow of money in these parts of Scotland and providing vital job opportunities. Farming and crofting are integral to the social fabric of rural Scotland and has been a part of our culture and heritage for thousands of years.

It is no secret that livestock production contributes to Green House Gas emissions, contributing to 5% of total UK emissions. But in recent years, other major GHG contributors, like food waste, fast fashion, energy and transport seem to have gotten off the hook. It seems it is easier to put a pitchfork into the farming industry, than it is to stab a needle into haute couture!

Mainstream media has a lot to answer for by sensationalising debates around meat consumption and its role in climate change. Highlighting agriculture as a carbon sink just isn’t sexy, it doesn’t sell newspapers, despite being the factual and take-home message which many members of the public should and need to hear.

We, too happily, latch on to "stop eating red meat to save the planet" as we’d much rather make a dietary switch than take one less holiday abroad or cut down on our ASOS deliveries.

Read more: Archaic trading system is strangling UK exports

Too often we blindly read reports in the media or posts by the anti-farming movement which fail to account for the global differences in livestock production. Intensive-style feedlots which fatten their livestock with grain – quickened by means of a hormone injection – couldn’t be a further cry from farming in Scotland. Livestock here are mostly reared extensively, on grass-fed diets – weather permitting – and farmers have to follow very strict animal welfare regulations or face severe consequences.

Scotland’s farmers are constantly looking at ways to improve their carbon footprint through improving livestock nutrition, restoring soil health, exploring agroforestry opportunities, reducing fertiliser use, planting hedgerows to support local wildlife populations, the list goes on.

From 1990-2017, Scottish agriculture decreased its Greenhouse Gas emissions by 29% and is continuing to work hard to pioneer new technologies which will potentially decrease methane emissions and increase carbon capture in the extensive grass areas of Scotland.

The industry is also constantly improving animal welfare regulations in regard to how animals are reared and slaughtered, as well as being more transparent with its consumers.

New innovations around DNA technology actually allow consumers to trace the origin of all meat back to the animal and farm it was raised on. This won’t just apply to supermarket purchases but in the food service sector too, which has often escaped the scrutiny of a rigorous audit which would accredit what it says on the menu!

The goal is to always be accountable to consumers and be more transparent. There is nothing to be gained from shying away from telling the public the true story of livestock production – from farm to fork – which includes slaughter. The fact of the matter is, demand for meat isn’t going to disappear, so it is important that we are constantly scrutinising and improving animal welfare regulations and that livestock farmers are held accountable for their actions by the public.

During the pandemic, there has been a huge drive towards reconnecting with where our food comes from as a result of the buy-local revolution. Long term, it is important that more farmers throw open their doors to the public and continue these vital conversations with their customers.

We can’t narrowly look at meat production without recognising the whole host of benefits it brings to wider society. Through eating a balanced diet, which includes locally sourced, high quality, high welfare meat, you can be confident that you are making not only an ethical and sustainable choice but one that delivers huge benefits to the wider Scottish society.

Claire Taylor is The Scottish Farmer’s political affairs editor.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.