The vital importance of livestock farming to the south west region was emphasised at a seminar attended by more than 50 key representatives from universities, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

Organised by the South West NFU, stakeholders heard from a panel of industry experts and farmers who set out the facts about a sector which is often unfairly blamed for contributing to global warming, demonstrating that reducing UK meat production won’t stop climate change.

NFU South West regional director Melanie Squires said: “We understand there is positive interest in this subject and we want to help key decision-makers understand better the role of farming, land management and food systems within the climate change debate.

“This was an opportunity to share our learning, discussing the facts and evidence as well as the genuine desire for partnership and the investment of expertise, science, innovation and education to ensure that we continue to have thriving countryside and rural communities – and the related local food supply chains – alongside high food standards and great environmental delivery.”

NFU president Minette Batters told the meeting that the standards which British farmers adhered to meant that livestock farming did not involve a choice between the environment and food production.

She said: “Despite what we are often told in the media, we can do both. It is quite wrong when the way livestock is produced here is equated with the way it is produced in other countries, when the systems are quite different.

“UK farming has some of the highest standards in the world both in terms of animal welfare and the environment, we produce high quality, nutrient-rich food which is very important when so many people eat poor diets and we need to encourage a return to whole foods."

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Prof Michael Lee, head of sustainable agriculture science at Rothamstead Research, warned about the danger of basing decisions on the basis of the global averages that are often quoted in media reports. He pointed out that the situation in the UK, where livestock were at the centre of a sustainable farming system that had underpinned rural society for generations, was very different.

“This system is based around three things – society, the economy and the environment – and it is all driven by soil. Soil needs organic matter and we must utilise livestock resources to improve our soil, which we know is becoming degraded.

“Our livestock are also about much more than food. They are crucial for maintaining the landscape so many tourists expect to see and are a source of natural fibres which will become more important as we try to move away from plastics. Livestock are part of the solution for sustainable global food security.”

Cathy Case, a mixed vegetable and livestock farmer from the South Hams in Devon, talked about the positive impact livestock has on her farm, not only in terms of making use of land that could not be used for growing vegetables because it is too steep, but making sure soils were kept in good condition.

Cathy said: “Our clover-rich leys which the cattle graze are fantastic, they are good for wildlife, provide winter forage and help us build fertility for the next crop. We cannot grow vegetables on our farm without improving soil fertility. We do this by keeping beef cattle.”

Jonathan Foot, head of environment at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) emphasised livestock’s sustainable credentials in terms of the amount of water used – producing one kilo of beef takes a fraction of the water used to produce two pairs of jeans – and the high nutritional value of meat, which AHDB research showed was something that consumers were increasingly interested in.

The presentations were rounded off by Phil Hadley, director of international market development from the AHDB, who talked about the Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) for West Country beef and lamb, which enables the region to promote its high-quality, primarily grass-fed livestock and has proved popular with shoppers and the catering trade.