Empowering people to make thoughtful food choices to support more sustainable agriculture is essential in the battle on climate change.

An event in Edinburgh has heard that while much work is ongoing to create a more sustainable food chain in Scotland and the UK, around soil carbon, water management, rewilding and a host of other topics. However, more needs to be done to help consumers gain access to truthful and accurate information and to debunk “some unhelpful myths.”
And one expert warned that even concerned national governments are making choices that risk “unintended consequences” that may hinder, rather than help, the fight against deforestation.

“Green Food and Drink: Sustainable Production and Procurement” was organised by Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce in partnership with City of Edinburgh Council to highlight work ongoing to tackle climate change as Scotland hosts the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. Events on Green Tourism, Green Finance, and the Built Environment have also been held.

A panel of speakers from home and abroad discussed the complex challenges faced in moving to a more sustainable food supply chain – from growing to waste disposal – and where opportunities might lie.

Dr Fiona Borthwick, an expert on global food security and nutrition at the University of Edinburgh, said that creating a sustainable system needed to be carefully and holistically approached, looking at growing, aggregation, processing, transport, waste and considering social and health issues – for example to ensure modern day slavery is not tolerated within food systems we engage with globally. Data driven innovation is essential for informed decisions on food systems.

“The problem of moving to a sustainable food system is complex, and involves all of the different stages, we really need to have sound evidence in order to make good decisions that don’t lead to other knock-on effects or rebounds.”
She added that it was essential to look at the impact of food systems on the environment and not just decarbonisation, to look at our impact though our interaction with the global food systems has and our impact on rural communities in developing economies.

“Many people are concerned, for example, on the impact of the importing of palm oil which is linked to deforestation and human rights abuses and when you begin to look at the evidence it is very unclear what the solution should be.”
She added that some governments, for example Iceland, had decided on the removal of palm oil from products, even palm oil certified as being sourced sustainably. “Does the evidence say that will stop the driving force of deforestation and prevent the harm we are concerned with? The evidence would say it is unclear but it could actually lead to further deforestation as local communities are looking for other opportunities to gain revenue. And are we ignoring our responsibility to help rural communities across the globe find sustainable revenue streams.”

Alan Laidlaw, Chief Executive of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, stressed that enormous work was ongoing across all sectors of farming in the UK to provide greater sustainability.

As an example of the efficiency of UK farming, he quoted that it takes 278 million dairy cows to provide milk for the world – but if UK farmers were to produce all of the milk for the world using their farming methods that number would be reduced to just 76 million.

He also called for a move away from the “binary arguments” of vegetarianism v meat-eating and dairy versus plant-based to a more thoughtful and considered approach. Many people sought out almond milk as an alternative to dairy they believed was sustainable, he said, yet almonds grown largely on the west coast of the USA require 54 inches of water per year in areas where rainfall is just 4 inches – requiring wasteful water use and with massive transport requirements.

Liz McAreavey, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Chamber, who chaired the event said that while the event illustrated the huge complexities of resolving the problem, it was necessary that the city came together to find its own solution based on evidence. “It is clear that there are myths out there around food choices that are not helpful, and it is vital that our strategy as a city is based on data and we can all support it and get behind it. We do need to be careful about unintended consequences and how we connect to that global supply chain.“ Innovative thinking, she said, would be key in finding solutions.

Hamish Torrie, Director of CSR and Communications Director at the Glenmorangie company outlined the significant work being done to make Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries more sustainable across all aspects of its activity, from sourcing ingredients to transporting its products around the world.

He also pointed out one carbon positive project the company is involved in. At Glenmorangie’s distillery on the Dornoch Firth an anaerobic digestion plant returns 97% pure wastewater from the distillery’s own spring to the Cromarty Firth, and to even further improve water quality the company is supporting the growing of an oyster reef.
Oysters existed in the Dornoch Firth till around 100 years ago. Mr Torrie said: “Oysters are fantastic filtrators of water. One native oyster can filter up to 200 litres of water a day and clean it up and so oyster reefs become havens for biodiversity and finally, they have an ability to lock up carbon.”

By last year 20,000 oysters had been returned to the water with a target of 200,000 by 2023 and 4 million by 2028
Mr Torrie added: “As City of Edinburgh you might like to know that you once had an oyster reef 20 miles long by six miles wide out in the Firth of Forth, all been eaten by humans, and all gone.”