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Future growth: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon

Future growth: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon

With farmers facing the consequences of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, Holyrood speaks to rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon about some of the challenges.

Farmers still face uncertainty about what the post-Brexit framework will look like. What can they expect?

We made a commitment to provide farmers, crofters and land managers with stability and simplicity and I made a further commitment that this government would not lower the basic payment rate in the lifetime of this parliament. These commitments provide certainty in the face of continued Brexit and pandemic disruption.

The Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board has been set up and embodies our commitment to work with farmers and crofters as we develop future policy and support them to produce food in a way that benefits nature and the climate. To support that vision we’re rolling out a National Test Programme this year, supported by £51m of Scottish Government funding.

The board will support our work to bring forward a new agricultural support system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, with a consultation this year to inform the introduction of a Scottish Agriculture Bill in 2023.

Our ultimate aim is to transform how we support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. This commitment will sit at the heart of a robust and coherent framework to underpin Scotland’s future agriculture support regime from 2025 onwards.

 Has Brexit created new opportunities for Scotland’s farmers and the food and drink sector more broadly?

No, Brexit has created a sense of insecurity and uncertainty across the sector, not to mention a drop in 2021 of some £20.2m in Scotland’s exports of meat to the EU, which of course includes our beef and lamb.

The UK Government’s Brexit deal has meant Scottish exporters are being forced to cope with a mountain of complex, time consuming and costly customs and borders arrangements. Our seed potato sector has been particularly badly affected with the EU and Northern Irish markets closed as a result of the EU exit.

We are also having to address the threat of the commitments negotiated by UK ministers in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

One of our significant concerns is the way the UK Government has approached these trade negotiations. I, along with my ministerial colleagues, have repeatedly written to UK ministers raising a number of fundamental concerns.  For example, the Scottish Government has consistently said imports of agri-food must be produced to the equivalent standards of production that the domestic industry is required to meet.

Where there are domestic sensitivities, such as in the red meat sector, there must be fair and sustainable tariff-rate quotas to control imports but, unfortunately, these concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

It’s also important to remember that these trade deals don’t even remotely undo the damage to Scotland’s economy and the meat sector caused by Brexit. The UK Government’s own economic modelling found that FTAs with Australia and New Zealand, for example, would see output within the UK agriculture and semi-processed food sectors fall.

We’re also seeing a shortage of workers because of Brexit and specifically the ending of freedom of movement. We have written to the UK Government, pushing for changes to UK migration policy including a full review of the costs of the immigration system, a review of the role and function of the Shortage Occupation List and the introduction of a 24-month temporary workers visa. But again, the UK Government is not listening to Scottish Ministers or to employers themselves.

We want people to come to Scotland to live and work. However, without powers over immigration our options are limited. We will do what we can within the powers available to us. We are committed to developing a migration service for Scotland, we will expand our Moving to Scotland resource and we are currently exploring three proposed models for a rural migration pilot scheme that will help us tackle population challenges in our rural communities. We will be working with local businesses and local government to develop these proposals.

 How do we encourage people to buy local when it’s often more expensive to do so?

In Scotland, we’re blessed with an amazing natural larder, but we know that not everyone in Scotland has access to the produce we have to offer.

As a government, we want to change that and last August we published our first-ever draft local food strategy, which sets out the wealth of actions we are taking to improve access to local food, including launching the Scotland Brings So Much to the Table campaign to drive increased sales and awareness of Scottish produce, and the Food for Life Programme, which now operates across 17 local authorities in Scotland, supporting the provision of more locally sourced, healthier food being served in schools.

The consultation on the draft strategy closed in December. It was vital we did this so that the public and relevant organisations have the chance to shape further government action to maximise the potential that local food production has to offer – enriching lives, improving diets, supporting local economies and ensuring that a low income isn’t a barrier to healthy, nutritious food.

To support Scotland’s local communities to thrive, we have also launched the £10m Scotland Loves Local multi-year programme. The programme includes a fund, national marketing campaign and gift card scheme that’s designed to motivate people to ‘think local first’, supporting local business and communities, building wealth in local communities, revitalising town centres, increasing footfall and activity safely in local places, in line with public health guidance.

Should we all be eating less meat for the sake of the planet?

We’ve long encouraged people to consume a healthy and balanced diet, which includes meat and dairy. Our updated Climate Change Plan sets out that our priority is to encourage people to consider the positive impacts of eating healthily, using locally sourced food through buying high-quality local Scottish produce and, crucially, minimising food waste.

Scottish produce, including meat and dairy, plays an important part in our lives – both culturally and in terms of nutrition. I fully support our red meat sector, who I know feel under pressure, and I’m determined to ensure our agriculture sector is rightly portrayed in a positive light. It’s also important that we continue to support the meat sector to meet our environmental goals and further increase the work underway to reduce emissions in farming. In doing this, Scotland’s food production sector can be confident in its world-leading environmental credentials, and enhance the reputation we have for high-quality food both here and abroad.

I strongly believe it’s better to work with our food production sector to ensure our food is produced in a truly sustainable manner, and encourage people to shop and source local, rather than risk simply offshoring emissions to other countries.

That’s why we published our draft local food strategy for consultation, which sets out the wealth of actions we are taking to encourage local food consumption. We are currently working through the responses and will publish a final strategy in due course.

What can the Scottish Government do to help incentivise Scottish farmers to adopt more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices?

Our vision for the future of Scottish agriculture is a positive one but we won’t achieve it without working together with our farmers and crofters. We also know that there are already a lot of farmers and crofters in Scotland who are doing some incredible work.

I’ve already mentioned our National Test Programme, which will support farmers and crofters to play their part in Scotland becoming a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

The twin-track approach we’re launching through that will mean – in the first track – every farm in Scotland will be supported and encouraged to undertake baseline measures over the next few years that will start with a carbon audit or nutrient management plan, including soil testing, for their individual farm business, with further options likely to be added. With the second track we’ll be working with a focused group of farmers and crofters to design and test how we will measure and reward sustainable farming practice in the future.

But this isn’t all we are doing. We want to support farmers and crofters in any way we can and we’re doing this with funds such as the Agri-Environment Climate scheme, which helps to promote land management practices that protect and enhance Scotland’s natural heritage, improve water quality, manage flood risk and mitigate and adapt to climate change. For the 2021 round, we have committed £30m to support more than 600 rural businesses.

Last year, I announced the extension of the scheme up to 2024, with a new round opening in each new calendar year, and we’ve just opened applications for the 2022 round.

We are in the process of paying claims for the Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grants Scheme, which provides grant funding for farmers and crofters to purchase specific items of agricultural equipment chosen for its effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gases as well supporting sustainable farming by improving land and livestock management.

We are also providing advice and support through the Farm Advisory Services and Farming for a Better Climate and we’re developing the Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate Change Network, a new network for farmers and crofters, to highlight and share actions that are being taken to tackle climate change and lower emissions.

Given the challenges we’ve seen caused by Brexit and the pandemic, could you guarantee food security in the event of an independent Scotland?

Yes, an independent Scotland would continue to trade with major food suppliers. It will open new doors and allow Scotland to target its own priority markets and provide agility in capitalising on emerging opportunities and demand from countries for our produce. We would also be able to protect our producers from the damaging trade deals that have been negotiated on our behalf and over which we have been given no say.

The UK Government’s determination to impose a hard Brexit against the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland has meant that trade with the EU is being damaged, with the latest UK figures from HMRC showing that UK exports of food and drink to the EU almost halved in the first quarter of 2021 and are down £2.5bn (-24.2 per cent) in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. We are also seeing the other damaging effects of EU withdrawal in Scotland – from food shortages to labour shortages.

It’s the Scottish Government’s intention that an independent Scotland will re-join the EU, which will give Scotland unimpeded access to the world’s largest single market.

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