Back to SOCIAL/ENVIRONMENTAL/POLITICAL
Is the MLURI now going to tell us what kind of
livestock we should have on our farms?
Dr James Irvine
Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie,
Filed 12 Sept 04
The Macauley Land Use Research Institute
(MLURI) at Aberdeen claims that it is "the premier land use
research institute in the UK" (1).
It is substantially funded by government
and there is little doubt that it has influenced government policy,
with the focus switching from food production to "consumer
use" with emphasis on environmental and social issues, as embodied
for example in the Scottish Executive's "A Forward Strategy
for Scottish Agriculture" (2). Or is
it that MLURI is merely following the political policies that its
paymaster is dictating?
Previous concern about MLURI policies
Concern about the policies advocated by the MLURI
has been previously voiced on this website when reviewing the ECRR
Conference, Battleby, Perthshire, May 2003 entitled "Scotland's
landscape - a fixed asset?" (3). At
that meeting Dr Dick Birnie gave a paper called "Drivers of
change - the human dimension". The conference literature described
Dr Birnie as "a geographer with a special interest in rural
land use and rural development issues. He manages the human dimension
science group of the MLURI". But does he know much about farming?
The policies that he articulated at that meeting,
and previously elsewhere, are largely the ones that are now coming
into effect and are heading to cause massive damage to the UK livestock
industry - and especially to quality Scottish livestock farming
- all in the name of progress. This is in addition to the problems
the industry has with the supermarkets (4).
In Scotland the provision of small additional aid to the suckler
herd farmer through the beef envelope, although encouraging, is
unlikely to be enough to save the quality end of the industry.
Chief Executive's lecture
Recently the Chief Executive of the MLURI gave
a plenary lecture at a conference in Slovenia held by the European
Association for Animal Production (EAAP). The title of her talk
"Society's need of livestock farming systems
and livestock products"
As with most Scottish livestock farmers, burdened
with trying to keep their livestock businesses afloat with very
few if any staff and wondering how they are going to cope in 2005,
it was not possible to go to Slovenia to hear her - even if one
had been a member of the European Association for Animal Production
(EAAP) or had the money to go there.
My guess would be that the EAAP would be a body
of academics together with representatives from governments or government
agencies, plus some delegates from industry wondering what the academics
and the government departments were up to - and then there would
be delegates from the various overseas aid agencies, government
or otherwise. It is possible that each of the many countries within
Europe - and possibly from outside - may have sent representatives
from each of these categories. That would soon add up to a lot of
people - some 800 so the newspapers tell us (5).
But was there a livestock farmer among them?
As far as the impending crisis in the UK livestock
industry is concerned, there are plenty of farmers who might well
have wanted to have an input into such a jamboree if only they had
an opportunity of getting a word in edgewise - even if anyone was
prepared to listen.
Within the UK the Meat and Livestock Commission
(MLC) and the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) have articulated
some strange ideas as to how the breeding of cattle in the UK should
alter - so as to lower the costs to an absolute minimum - concentrating
as these bodies apparently do on the commodity market to the detriment
The UK government's national scrapie plan in relation
to sheep is now in trouble. Belatedly, the threat to high value
genetics is now being recognised by the experts. It is to be remembered
that BSE (to which scrapie may be theoretically linked) has never
been detected in sheep other than in the laboratory.
Professor Margaret Gill
Chief Executive, MLURI Aberdeen
(Photograph kindly supplied
The MLURI is a highly influential body in terms
of land management within the UK, and especially Scotland. But they
are not recognised as having any great expertise in livestock farming.
As far as the MLURI is concerned. the impression they give is that
such livestock are tools to keep the landscape in good environmental
condition - accusing farmers of causing either overgrazing or undergrazing.
Land-Care contacted MLURI for a statement about
the content of their Chief Executive's lecture. They kindly directed
me to the abstract on the EAAP website (6).
It reads as follows:
SUNDAY 5TH SEPTEMBER 08.30h - PROF MARGARET GILL, MACAULAY INSTITUTE
"Society's need of livestock farming systems and livestock
"Livestock have contributed to society over millennia through
providing food, shelter, power and fuel. Animal science has enabled
livestock keepers to respond and adapt to the increasing needs
of a growing human population and the changes in requirements
which have followed the strengthening of economies and the mass
movement of people from rural areas into towns and cities, but
have we been successful?
"Blaxter and Robertson (1995) talked about the modern agricultural
revolution taking place between the mid 1930s and the mid 1980s,
in which for the first time science was properly harnessed
to the improvement in agricultural productivity. Animal
scientists in the past made a mark on the world through their
science. What mark have we made on the world in the past 20 years?
"800 million people in the world are malnourished, environmental
degradation is frequently blamed on livestock, intensive systems
have contributed to rural depopulation and with obesity in epidemic
proportions in developed countries have we really contributed
to the nutritional health of our European nations? Have we been
addressing the right questions?
"Livestock provide a route out of poverty for many families
in poor countries, of meeting a consumer demand for organic food
through provision of organic fertiliser, they provide a means
of managing our landscapes, of maintaining biodiversity but all
of this needs management of the livestock to achieve the desired
outcomes of a countryside which people want to live in or visit.
Do we have the answers to the questions likely to be posed by
"Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy means a different
kind of farming in the future. Public funding for research will
follow these new needs. Are we ready to respond to the new challenges?
We can be proud to be animal scientists; and to recognise the
contribution that animal scientists have made to society. But
at the same time we need to remind ourselves to think laterally,
not to focus solely on livestock as sources of food but to recognise
their wider role in society and to change the research we do to
meet these needs."
So it is as I had feared - at least from the Scottish
perspective. It looks as though the damage from the policies previously
articulated by Dr Birnie of the MLURI is going to be progressive.
According to the MLURI, research should now be
directed on how to produce cattle that fit environmental needs and
not just be sources of food. Such a statement reveals a serious
failure to understand how livestock farming operates in Scotland
- and no doubt in many other countries. Of course the selection
of the breeds used in any particular part of the country has to
and does take account of the environment - it has done so for generations.
What Professor Margaret Gill and her colleagues
seem to ignore is that the public (at least in Scotland) appear
to be well pleased with the current state of the landscape and do
not rate environmental issues above - or indeed anywhere near -the
production of local food (7). Quality beef
production in Scotland is one of the nation's remaining icons that
has not yet been destroyed. But it is under serious threat from
policies emerging from government and the institutes that it funds
- such as MLURI.
Some 68% of the funding of MLURI comes from the
Scottish Executive. It is sad to see an institute such as MLURI
seemingly having to follow political agendas, rather than attempting
to provide a wider and more balanced - and indeed independent -
picture to the public.
A heifer with its recently born calf at Cultybraggan
For Aberdeen Angus genetic evaluation, an Australian programme is
now being adopted
in preference to the one developed in the UK which is now outdated
(Photograph © James Irvine, Kimpton Graphics)
What is actually happening in relation to livestock
genetics in Scotland is that regrettably we are having to look elsewhere
for the appropriate expertise. Take for example Aberdeen Angus cattle.
This summer the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society
transferred the methodology it uses to assess the beef value of
their pedigree registered animals away from the UK MLC/Signet system
(which has stagnated) to a system developed in Australia. This system
- referred to as BreedPlan - evolved
from an impressive collaboration between Australia's academic institutions
and their livestock industry in the presence of a permissive government
(8, 9). The Australians
are now world leaders in this area. The contrast from the situation
in the UK could hardly be more striking.
Lest anyone should think that I have been unfair
to Slovenia or to the EAAP, it looks as though we may be in for
more of the same at a conference to be held later this month in
Edinburgh under the auspices of The Royal Society of Edinburgh and
sponsored by Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland. The
conference is entitled Scotland's Land (10).
Professor Margaret Gill is included in the programme.
We are likely to hear even more about misguided
perceptions whereby overemphasis is placed on issues relating to
the environment, conservation and biodiversity as part of the political
crusade of the "greens ". Perhaps this is not surprising
as it makes for big business for bodies such as MLURI and the SAC,
if they are prepared to follow the Scottish Executive's line and
thereby get funding. But it is not going to do Scotland much good
with its already high standards of environment, conservation and
biodiversity. It will not be possible to improve or even maintain
many of these standards unless Scotland has a viable farming industry.
People Too conference 29th October, 2004: "Who governs Scotland?"
But then there is another conference coming up.
People Too is holding its second conference in the Dewar
Centre, Perth on Friday 29th October (at a fraction of the price)
with the title "Who governs Scotland?" (11).
Their previous conference held two years go attracted more delegates
than the annual main conferences of either SNH or what was then
called the Scottish Landowners Federation (but which has since been
revamped under another name which somehow I keep forgetting).
Is the management of SNH's Highland herd of cattle on Rum an indication
of the shape of things to come?
Those who are so excessively keen on environmental
issues, such as our friends at the MLURI, should also take heid
of what Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has allegedly been up to
with its Highland herd of cattle on its isle of Rum. As pointed
out by People Too, SNH has a lot of explaining to do in relation
to alleged inappropriate applications for SEERAD beef subsidies
and alleged neglect of animal welfare in its pursuit to use cattle
as an environmental tool (12).
In the spirit of open government it will be interesting
to see how SEERAD investigates its own agency in relation to an
apparent conflict of interest between food production, environment,
tourism and animal welfare. Certainly, by any stretch of the imagination,
what is alleged to be going on at Rum is not "sustainable",
nor is it acceptable.
2. Scottish Executive Environment
and Rural Affairs Department (2001). A forward strategy for Scottish
3. Irvine, James (2003). Arrogance
of academics pontificating about rural affairs. Are they letting
us down? ECRR conference" Scotland Landscape - a fixed asset?".
Battleby, Perthshire 8th May 2003
See SOCIAL/ENVIRONMENTAL/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 14 May
03, www.land-care.org.uk Click
Here to View
4. National Beef Association (2004).
The UK beef industry will suffocate through lack of financial oxygen.
Press release, 6th September 2004.
5. Article (2004). Livestock science
must ask the right questions. A reader's view.
Dundee Courier, 6th Sep 04, p 15.
7. Irvine, James (2004). "Public
support for green farming". More spin from the Scottish Executive
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 10 Sep 04,
Here to View
8. Sundstrom, Brian (2002).
Australian based international beef cattle genetic evaluation program.
See SCIENCE Homepage, filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk Click
Here to View
9. Irvine, James (2003).
Future pedigree breeding of cattle.
See SCIENCE Homepage, filed 6th June 03, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
11. People Too Conference (2004).
"Who governs Scotland?" Dewar Centre, Perth, Friday 29th
October. People Too, PO Box 8002, Spean Bridge, Inverness-shire
12. Irvine, James (2004). The
management of the SNH suckler herd of Highland cows on Rum.
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 30 Aug 04,
Here to View