Q&A: Fergus Ewing on Brexit, forestry and the Good Food Nation Bill
The prospect of a no deal Brexit appears to have become more likely over the last year. What would that mean for your brief?
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would potentially have a catastrophic impact on Scotland’s rural economy with serious consequences for jobs, in-vestment, productivity and living standards in our rural and island communities.
Along with my Cabinet colleagues, I am working to mitigate these unacceptable impacts as much as possible. That is why we an-nounced that we will pay out the highest level of loan payments to farmers at the start of October, so they have their funding and can inject that into their businesses and the wider rural economy.
It is also why Ministers are meeting regularly to discuss no deal planning. It is why I continue to press UK Ministers for progress on matters like sheep compensation, export health certificates, priority transport for key food exports, and that we have clarity on future funding for forestry and rural community development. And I will continue to press the new Defra Secretary to deliver on the cam-paign promise made by Boris Johnston to “right the injustice” of the £160 million convergence funding due to farmers.
Most importantly, I am visiting and engaging with stakeholders, businesses, employers and employees to get the message across to people from the EU and their families who work in rural industries that they are welcome here and we want them to stay.
But even if we succeed in achieving any or all of these measures, a no deal Brexit will still harm Scotland’s rural economy. We will not be able, with the resources and levers that Scotland currently has, to mitigate all the impacts. That is why the best option is for no deal to be taken off the table.
The Scottish Government met its annual tree planting targets for the first time this year. What benefits can afforestation bring?
We didn’t just meet our annual tree planting targets – we smashed them.
It was very much a shared national endeavour with both large and small land managers planting 11,200 hectares – equivalent to 22 million trees. I was delighted that the Scottish Government itself, through its agency Forestry and Land Scotland, contributed directly to this total by planting 1,000 hectares, well beyond its own planting target for the year.
All this tree planting comes at a hugely important time as we are facing a global climate emergency. Growing trees is one of the few activities that removes carbon from the atmosphere, so if we plant more trees we can remove more carbon. This is why we already have plans in place to increase our planting targets over the next few years.
The benefits of tree planting doesn’t stop there. Forestry and relat-ed industries contribute almost £1 billion each year to our economy and support over 25,000 jobs. Productive forestry is as important as creating and maintaining native woodlands – growing more trees for our wood and paper needs means we import less timber and paper, contributing to our role as a good global citizen.
We also shouldn’t forget that forests and woodlands are part and parcel of many of our iconic landscapes, are rich in biodiversity, and home to some of our most recognisable species, such as the Red Squirrel.
And who doesn’t simply enjoy walking or cycling in our woodlands? Being able to get away from it all, enjoying clean air and exercise makes an important contribution to improving people’s health and well-being – our forests are our own natural health service.
Has holding this particular brief impacted on how you view buying, cooking and eating your own food?
I have always been a supporter of Scottish produce and of buying and shopping local wherever possible. What is important I think is not only for my family to enjoy more locally produced and locally sourced food, but to make sure every family in Scotland has that opportunity.
The Good Food Nation Bill aims for everyone in Scotland to have ready access to food, while also ensuring production is environmentally sound. Is there a tension between eating healthily and providing low cost meals?
We remain committed to our Good Food Nation ambition and much is being done across Government to make a real and positive difference to the lives of people in Scotland.
I recognise that it can be a real challenge to put a healthy meal on the table for your family when you’re on a budget. We’ve worked hard with Scottish food suppliers and retailers to make low-cost healthier foods available in-store.
The Scottish Government funds the Healthy Living Programme to promote the sale of healthier foods in over 2,000 stores nationwide and we provide hints, tips and money-saving ideas through our Eat Better Feel Better campaign (see https://www.parentclub.scot/articles/eat-better-feel-better), aimed specifically at families with young children.
At the end of the day, we want everyone to have enough income to be able to eat well, which is why we’re promoting the living wage, and have put dignity right at the centre of our social security system. We also have our Scottish Welfare Fund which helps people who are on a low income (see: https://www.mygov.scot/scottish-welfare-fund/) and we provide funding to community organisations for a whole range of positive work around food.
It is also important for government at all levels to use its purchasing power to provide more healthy produce and more locally sourced food. The more markets that Scottish producers have, the more affordable and accessible local produce becomes for all. That is why we are funding Soil Association Scotland to roll out its Food for Life programme to all 32 local authorities if we can. This would ensure that Scottish and healthy produce features more in school meals and at breakfast clubs.
Concerns over the environmental impact of farmed salmon are well known. To what extent has the industry made progress in the last year and is it still one to celebrate?
We have made a number of commitments to ensure the protection and enhancement of Scotland’s marine environment, balanced with the sustainable growth of Scotland’s aquaculture industry, which already makes a valuable social and economic contribution to Scotland’s economy - supporting over 12,000 jobs and adds around £620 million of added value.
This government is absolutely committed to getting the balance right for Scotland’s biggest and most important food sector. That is why we have made a number of commitments to ensure the protection and enhancement of our marine environment while enabling the sustainable growth of fish and seafood farming.
Good progress is being made to strengthen the regulatory framework, including a tightened sea lice compliance policy and a commitment to improve transparency through statutory sea lice reporting in 2020.
But we also need to recognise the environmental benefits of fish and seafood farming – this is a low carbon, healthy food at which Scotland excels. It is also generating research, development and innovation in supply industries and new products that creates jobs and economic benefit too.
Salmon farming is a key economic sector for our country, providing highly skilled, well paid jobs in often remote rural and island areas. Our regulatory changes, being developed in consultation with the sector and wild fish interests, will only enhance the reputation of Scottish salmon as a world class, sustainable product, providing some of the most eco-efficient, healthy food protein to meet a growing global demand.
Scottish salmon farming continues to innovate and thrive despite the uncertainties of Brexit, providing thousands of highly skilled and well paid jobs in our remotest coastal communities. It is a sector to celebrate and one of which Scotland can continue to be proud.
You are one of our most experienced MSPs in terms of ministerial roles, what advice do you wish you had been given when you first arrived in the role?
I received good advice from the then Permanent Secretary who told us all (with just a dash of menace): “Remember - everything you say - you say as a Minister”.
Advice to newbie Ministers, be crystal clear about what you wish to see accomplished - and how it should best be done. Then be persistent.
We all know that farming is a tough profession, if you had the choice of working in the rural economy, what job would you choose to do?
Yes, farming is a very tough profession. We will always be grateful for the contribution our farmers and crofters make to food production, to creating the landscape that citizens and tourists alike want to enjoy and which makes Scotland so iconic internationally, and for the significant contribution they make as custodians of our environment.
But to answer your question I believe I already have the best job I could have in the rural economy. I have the privilege of working with and for the people and communities who are actively en-gaged in developing the rural economy.
I can help others understand just what a significant contribution rural Scotland makes to the economy more generally and I can influence how we maximise the fantastic assets that rural Scot-land’s has for the benefit of all our people and for the future of our country.
Boris Johnson enjoys painting wooden crates. What do you do to unwind?
That’s easy – I spend all my available time with family, especially my partner and daughter.