Ploughing ahead: Planning for the future in a time of rural upheaval
The war in Ukraine may have moved food security to the top of rural economy minister Mairi Gougeon’s agenda, but creating a post-Brexit agricultural policy remains key to the brief
With existing ferries failing to run, new ferries failing to materialise and superfast broadband still not reaching the most northerly parts of the country, it has not been the best of years to have oversight of the rural affairs and islands brief.
There have, nevertheless, been glimmers of positivity for rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon, with rewilding projects – a favourite policy of the SNP’s governmental partners the Greens – getting under way and legislation such as the Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill getting an airing in parliament.
In the case of the former, work has begun on a 30-year rewilding project that will see 500,000 acres of land in the Highlands left to return to nature, while in the case of the latter a bill to tighten the existing ban on fox hunting was introduced in February.
There has finally been some movement on bringing the Scottish Government’s promised post-Brexit agricultural policy forward too.
When the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which had been designed to stabilise food production across the bloc, was copied into UK legislation following Brexit, the Scottish Government said it was going to design something better to replace the CAP north of the border.
There was initially scant detail on what that would entail, but the government published two documents in March which, it says, provide “information about how we will support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture”.
The first of those documents outlines the government’s “vision for Scottish agriculture” and notes that a support framework will be put in place so farmers and crofters can deliver “high-quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration”.
The aim, it says, is to “meet more of our own food needs sustainably and to farm and croft with nature”. It will do this, the government says, while maintaining jobs, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, streamlining food production and enhancing nature.
In the second of the documents - A National Test Programme to Start Transforming Agriculture in Scotland – the government lays out its twin-track approach to achieving that. The first track, which is already under way, is all about encouraging farmers to take stock of their environmental impact and incentivising them to make improvements. The second will “design, test, improve and standardise the tools, support and process necessary to reward farmers, crofters and land managers for the climate and biodiversity outcomes they deliver”.
A consultation on how that should be translated into policy-making is due to launch this summer, though the introduction of the policy itself, which is not expected until 2026, is still some way off.
Something that found a quicker route through Holyrood was Gougeon’s Good Food Nation Bill, which was introduced in October 2021 and became law in July this year. Speaking to Holyrood at the beginning of the year, Gougeon said the aim of the bill was to turn Scotland into a nation where “people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day”.
“The bill places duties on Scottish ministers and certain public authorities to produce plans of their policies in relation to food and set out what they will do to make those plans real,” she said.
“The plans will also have to set out the main outcomes to be achieved in relation to food-related issues, the policies needed to do this and the measures we will use to assess progress.
“Food policy cuts across all aspects of our lives and our Good Food Nation Bill will lead the way in providing an over-arching framework for clear, consistent and coherent future Scottish food policy.”
Despite the ambition of that policy, food security has come into sharper focus in recent months, with Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has impacted on grain supplies and exacerbated already-spiralling energy costs, putting even more pressure on an area of the economy that has been negatively impacted by Covid and Brexit.
Gougeon responded to that in March by launching a short-life Food Security and Supply Taskforce to “monitor, identify and respond to” any potential disruption to supplies. Co-chaired by Gougeon and James Withers, the chief executive of industry body Scotland Food & Drink, the taskforce reported in June, noting that there is likely to be “continued turbulence” in the months ahead and making a number of recommendations designed to help.
Though Gougeon and Withers wrote in the foreword to the report that it is the UK Government that “holds many of the levers” for addressing food supply issues, they said the Scottish Government would “establish new food security structures in Scotland because effective management and monitoring of Scotland’s food security will be important”.
The taskforce’s recommendations fell into three categories – business and supply chain support, future national food security structures and reserved issues to be raised with the UK Government – with the first focusing on speeding up the process for paying out subsidies to farmers and making it easier for those working in the sector to access information on the financial help available to them.
It also suggested that the Scottish Government set up a dedicated food security unit so that “government and industry would be on the front foot and able to react as quickly as possible to any future shocks”. Lobbying the UK Government to address post-Brexit labour shortages by easing immigration rules was also seen as key.
A deal signed between Russia and Ukraine on 22 July allowed Ukrainian ports to reopen for food exports at the beginning of August. That will have relieved some of the pressure on UK supply chains, but with energy prices expected to continue rising food security will remain a major focus for the rural economy minister in the year ahead.
Q&A with Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon
The global situation and the war in Ukraine have once again underlined the importance of food security and eating locally, how can we as individuals do our bit?
Over the last two years, our food and drink sectors have experienced a series of shocks in terms of disrupted supply chains and new barriers to trade through Covid and Brexit. While immediate supplies of food are secure, food and drink producers are facing hugely challenging increases in energy bills and price rises across the board, as a result of the global economic situation.
That is why, in March, I established the Food Security and Supply Taskforce jointly with industry to better understand the potential impact of disruption to the food supply chain in Scotland, how industry and government might work together to manage and mitigate those, and be alert to the resulting impact on the cost of food products.
As individuals we can do our bit by buying local produce, which not only helps support local producers and communities, but could also reduce the carbon footprint of the food we consume.
What do you say in response to those who say we must fully cut meat out of our diets to help save the planet?
Meat and dairy are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and if we choose to consume them, it should be in line with public health guidance. I think the emphasis should rather be on how this food is produced, and made accessible, for people to make healthier, greener choices. That is why, the Scottish Government continues to actively promote the consumption of fresh, local and seasonal produce.
How does agriculture have to change in Scotland to meet the demands of the climate crisis?
Our vision - published in March this year - is for Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative farming. There are already a lot of farmers and crofters in Scotland who are moving this way. Our intention is that Scotland's future agriculture support regime from 2025 onwards will be one that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.
High quality, nutritious food locally and sustainably produced is key to our wellbeing – in economic, environmental, social and health terms. We will support and work with farmers and crofters to meet more of our own food needs sustainably and to farm and croft with nature.
We’ve heard a lot about Brexit opportunities but what has the reality been like for Scotland’s farmers since leaving the EU?
Rather than opportunities, the hard Brexit imposed on Scotland by the UK Government has delivered a challenging operating environment for Scotland’s farmers and inflicted significant and lasting damage on our world class food and drink industries, rural and coastal communities.
We have repeatedly highlighted the issue of labour and skills shortages and the impacts on the food and drink sector with the UK Government and this needs to be taken seriously.
I know for some sectors, particularly pig producers, the last year has been particularly challenging. Pig producers have been affected by the temporary closure of the abattoir at Brechin last year, and subsequent suspension of its China export licence.That is why they will receive more financial support and I announced in May that the Pig Producers Hardship Support Scheme was to be extended for a second and final time.
Brexit has also led to the UK Internal Market Act, and the Subsidy Control Act which flows from it, which threatens our ability to make devolved choices that are in the best interests of Scottish agriculture by imposing a superstructure which restricts our choices, controlled by UK ministers. The reality is that between 2021-22 and 2024-25 Scotland is set to lose out on approximately £93m.
How would independence benefit Scotland’s farmers?
Land, and the natural capital it supports, is part of the foundation of Scotland’s prosperity at present, not least in our globally renowned food and drink industry. Greater freedom in the powers to influence how that land is stewarded and used going forward will enable us to deliver on our ambitious goals for climate change, the environment, food security and how the communities that depend on that land can thrive.
Agriculture is devolved and we are already using the powers we have to deliver positive change. However, independence would offer additional powers that would open up more opportunities for our farmers and crofters to realise the full potential of our world-leading agricultural sector. Independence will also give us the flexibility to distribute agricultural support on the basis that best suits our unique, Scottish circumstances.
Have you changed your own diet or where you buy produce from since this taking on your current cabinet role and what is your favourite Scottish dish or ingredient?
I’ve always been a bit of a foodie, but since becoming cabinet secretary, I’ve become much more aware of how important provenance is, and just what fantastic produce Scotland has, with huge variety and innovation too. And also, how what we produce here in Scotland supports jobs in the wider economy, particularly in remote rural and island communities. I eat a lot of Scottish dishes made from Scottish ingredients but if I had to pick one out as my favourite, it would be Scottish seafood.
For many, the pandemic has been a time of reflection and a reassessment of priorities, has it affected your outlook on life and have there been any silver linings?
I’ve reflected a lot too on how well our food producers stepped up to the challenge of keeping the nation fed and how quickly they pivoted and responded to demand. These are silver linings definitely worth building on. Valuing and cherishing what we have in our personal lives and in our national life is more important than ever now.
This article appears in Holyrood’s Annual Review 2021/22