Tools to support provenance of Scottish food produce
Scotland has cultivated a reputation as a producer of high-quality healthy food. Crucial to sustaining this reputation and economic value is to provide the means to prove the provenance of Scottish foods. Ethics around supporting the local economy and protecting the environment through reducing food miles also play a role. There is a desire to increase the vegetable component of the Scottish diet whilst decreasing red meat intake. This comes from a health perspective, as red meat has been flagged as a cancer risk. Additionally a more vegetable-based diet is considered “more sustainable” as meat production is associated with greater greenhouse gas emissions than plant crop production.
The Scottish plant produce sector is of high value to Scottish agriculture. However, the uncertainty of post-European Union exit trade deals may allow increased access to the Scottish market from competitor producers of varying standards. Climate change may also allow additional existing producers to move into typically Scottish food products. The development of “controlled environment” agriculture allows plant growth to be achieved under similar conditions anywhere on the planet. Given these threats to provenance, being able to prove the origins of Scottish plant produce becomes more pressing; not only for food produced by traditional farming methods but also food produced by rapidly developing new methods such as vertical plant growth systems.
Food scandals are a powerful driver of a public desire for assurance on the source of their food. There is a need to protect Scotland’s reputation as a producer of high-quality food while allowing people to make informed ethical food choices based upon robust provenance methods.
Strontium (Sr) isotopes in soils are linked to specific locations being primarily, but not exclusively, controlled by the age of the underlying geology and show little fractionation from source to crops grown in the soil. Accurate maps of Sr isotopes at the Scottish scale are essential for their use in crop and food provenance but existing maps lack data for large areas of agricultural land and do not fully consider the complexity of the Scottish landscape.
- To what extent do higher-value status products hold a price premium and face additional production costs relative to comparable standard products?
This project aims to create a more applicable Scottish soil Sr isotope map using soil samples from the National Soil Archive and existing resources, to provide a country-wide coverage of productive Scottish land. Such a map would enable a robust means by which to prove the provenance of traditionally grown crops.
Any geographical information from soils is however lost in soilless controlled environment cultivation and provenance must instead rely on geographical information present in supplied nutrient solutions. The water used in the production of nutrient solutions is likely to be local to any controlled environment facilities. As Sr is also present in water, the new Sr isotope map should also aid in proving the provenance of food produced in these rapidly developing controlled environment systems. This approach is being applied to investigate the provenance of plant food produced in Scotland including soft fruit, grain and vegetables grown in the field as well as controlled environment farming systems. The creation of an accurate Sr isoscape at the Scottish scale could provide the means by which to match the Sr isotope signature of 'Scottish' plant produce thereby proving provenance and protecting against fraudulent food.
The first stage of the project is to identify and source samples to analyse and to develop appropriate methods to be used throughout the project; this would be two-fold focussing on both traditionally grown crops as well as crops grown in controlled environment facilities. In consultation with BioSS and the National Soils Archive roughly 400 soils (incorporating a proportional and geographical distribution of Scottish soil associations) have been identified in the Archive for inclusion in the project. Other sets of sourced collections include soil samples to investigate changes in Strontium isotope ratios with depth profiles as well as agricultural soil samples collected over several decades to examine any issues with soil treatments. Crop and water samples from traditional farms at Dundee have also already been sourced, while several vertical plant growth facilities, both in the UK and abroad have been identified for contact with a view to supplying nutrient solutions and matching plant material.
Concurrently, optimisation of the methods to be used throughout the project have also been taking place. With consideration to the type of material being examined (plant, soil or water) as well as the treatment of the material before extraction, proving important. Investigation of these considerations have led to the establishment of a standard operating protocol to be used through the remainder of the project.
Furthermore, discussion has been instigated with Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and an archaeologist to ascertain how the data from this project could also prove useful for their work. In addition, consultation with the Finnish Food Authority on method development and quality control has been ongoing, as they are involved in a similar project. The aim of future collaboration with this group will be to swap samples for quality control purposes as well as developing applications.