'There are clear and present dangers': Fergus Ewing on the post-Brexit future of Scottish food and drink
The cabinet secretary for rural affairs on Brexit, climate change, and changes to the nation's diet
Scotland’s food and drink sector has been a tremendous success story,” Fergus Ewing says.
Always the enthusiast for promoting Scottish produce, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy says that he would quite like to fill Holyrood’s columns with “stories of positivity, creativity and success”.
“The figures show that in financial terms alone, the value to the economy has risen massively over the past decade,” he says.
“But, what’s perhaps more important is that that rise has been associated with a flourishing of entrepreneurship, innovation, energy, flair and imagination across the whole spectrum from start-ups to household names.”
Ewing has championed the interests and promoted the successes of food and drink producers of all sorts for nearly a decade.
But speaking two days before the UK left the European Union, Ewing was clearly preoccupied with the big challenges facing the sector in the coming years.
“But unfortunately,” he says, “at the moment, whilst we have all these positives, we have an unnerving array of negatives all lined up right in front of us.”
As the UK Government congratulates itself on “getting Brexit done” and begins the process of defining what relationship the country will have with the world, food and drink producers are looking to be given top priority in the dawning age of ‘Global Britain’.
We have an unnerving array of negatives all lined up right in front of us.
The first test of the UK’s new free-trading approach could be on some of Scotland’s most iconic products.
In October 2019, the US, as part of a dispute over EU subsidies on airplane manufacturing, slapped a 25 per cent tariff on products including shortbread, cashmere and Scotch Whisky.
The Scotch Whisky Association has warned that if it continues, then £100m of exports is likely to be lost.
“I do have to ask – I don’t mean to be political,” Ewing says on this point, “but we’re told all the time that the UK and the USA have a ‘special relationship’.
“I think most people infer, then, that the key ingredient of a special relationship is that the UK has a greater influence on the USA than other countries.
“Well, if that’s the case then that doesn’t square with the imposition of these tariffs.”
Brexit, as a whole, has Ewing feeling put out. He says his vote to Remain was grounded in a belief in post-war ideals of cooperation that began with the European Coal and Steel Community.
“And it still stands – there hasn’t been a war amongst countries that are members of the EU,” he says.
“I don’t want my 11-year-old daughter to be living in a world where she or anyone close to her is having to fight a war with European countries.
“That’s why I voted Remain.
“Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s any immediate threat of that, but nobody thought that of 1939 or 1914 either, did they? The world is an incredibly unstable place at the moment.
“So, there’s really a lot at stake here by leaving the EU.
“But getting back to food and drink…”.
There are “clear and present dangers” to the quality and success of Scottish food and drink, and to the Scottish diet, post-Brexit, Ewing believes.
There are the trade barriers, but another risk, Ewing says, “is the fact that we will now face the possibility of importation of food and drink that doesn’t meet our high standards”.
“Chlorinated chicken is one example,” he says.
“Actually, I think one of the real threats is the importation of beef that has no traceability, no welfare to speak of.”
The importation of cheap meat from the US or other markets could have an undermining effect on Scotch beef, lamb and chicken, he worries.
“The real worry is that the Brexiteers and the right-wing end of the Tory party just want a free-for-all,” Ewing says.
“Michael Gove promised that there would be a trade commission, Theresa Villiers seems to have backtracked on that. The National Farmers Union in England has pulled her up on that.
“It was supposed to be, Michael Gove promised, that trade legislation would outlaw this.
“It hasn’t happened and there’s no sign of it. And this is a very real worry for livestock farmers in the UK.”
UK ministers’ reliability on delivering financial support for farmers after the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is also something Ewing worries about.
“We’ve moved from a seven-year plan, a long-term budgeting plan, where farmers, by and large, have a reasonable expectation of what their direct income has been, to one where they go from a year-to-year payment.”
That, in Ewing’s view, is “infinitely inferior” to the relative certainty provided before. Although UK Government ministers have suggested that the payment scheme will be replicated for the next three years, Ewing claims, farmers actually have no certainty beyond next year.
“And that is where we stand as a matter of technicality. They said in the newspapers that the money is secure for three years, but to us they’ve said they can’t guarantee that the settlement this year will be replicated in the next two years.”
The other Brexit threat relates to workers.
“People are the essential ingredient of rural life in Scotland and in particular, in the food and drink sector,” Ewing says.
The rural economy would “grind to a halt”, Ewing says, without workers, typically, from central and eastern Europe, particularly to harvest fruit and vegetables.
Although there is a UK-wide Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme designed to compensate for a decline in workers, the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee, among others, says that it needs to be vastly expanded to meet the needs of farmers.
In January, the Scottish Government launched a proposal for a tailored immigration policy for Scotland, but it was dismissed by the UK Government within hours.
The dismissal, Ewing says, is indicative of an “elitist, narrow, parochial, restrictive” approach by UK ministers that is “contrary to what the mood is in Scotland”.
“Although I myself enjoy a good working relationship with George Eustice, I am afraid I can’t say that about many other UK ministers,” he says.
“But I do have to say that my feeling, and I think some of my colleagues as well, is that although they say that Scotland is equal and we’re a partner, that it doesn’t really reflect the way the dealings are handled.
“We don’t get much information shared with us. Even though, when I have received confidential information, I haven’t leaked it .
“I’ve leaked less than some of the UK cabinet members have, frankly,” he says.
“There’s a lack of willingness to explain [decisions]. Where they say ‘no’, they don’t say ‘no because…’. They just say ‘no’.”
The new system could feature a salary threshold of up to £30,000 for immigrants, something the UK Migration Advisory Committee has recommended be reduced to meet labour needs.
“I’ve discussed these issues with UK ministers and I haven’t actually met a UK minister who has defended the £30,000 threshold,” Ewing says.
“All of them that I spoke to privately said that it was unreasonable and restrictive and counterproductive to the rural economy.”
But there’s a much bigger challenge, though, for Scottish agriculture to meet: climate change.
Agriculture is Scotland’s second largest contributor of greenhouse gasses, producing about 30 per cent of all emissions, including carbon and methane. Can the Scottish Government track and, if necessary, enforce climate action?
“A lot of good work has been done, but a lot more needs to be done,” Ewing says. Much of that work, he claims, is being done “behind the scenes”.
“I hope and expect that we’ll make substantial progress over the year about devising a plan to become carbon neutral,” Ewing says.
Ewing feels it’s important to stick up for farmers who, he says, are feeling “a bit beleaguered” for not getting the recognition they deserve for land management and caring for their livestock.
“A lot of them feel that they’re subjected to quite a lot of criticism, quite a lot of which seems to them, and to me, to be a little unfair.”
Consumers habits are changing, too, as people embrace the health and environmental benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption.
The Committee on Climate Change has recommended we each reduce our meat and dairy intake by 20 per cent. What can producers do to rise to that challenge?
“Well, you know, I think a balanced, healthy diet should include a range of things including red meat and fish and, you know, I think people’s right to choose their type of diet should be respected,” Ewing says on the subject.
“Vegans are quite entitled to make their choices, as are carnivores, like myself,” he says.
“I do think it is up to each individual what choices they make and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell you what you should eat and if I did, you probably wouldn’t take it very well.”
Ewing speaks of reducing portion sizes as an alternative approach.
But food isn’t simply about preferences of taste. There are questions about the long-awaited Good Food Nation Bill, whether it will enshrine access to food as a right, something that was at one time the central principle of the future policy.
But Ewing won’t be drawn into “transgressions” about the detail of the bill, or its timing.
“We’re working on it as we speak,” he says.
“It’ll be coming along soon, so the wait will soon be over.