Living off the land
The issue of what exactly we are eating has never been far from the headlines over the last two months as the horsemeat scandal unfolded.
While the spectre of horse — and who knows what else — being substituted for beef moved ever closer to Scotland and more and more dirt was unearthed over what was actually in the food available on supermarket shelves and beyond, there was one perhaps surprising aspect — it did not scare people off.
While previous food scandals, such as Salmonella in eggs and BSE in beef, rocked sales and damaged the farming industry, journalists covering the story were constantly reminded that some butchers had seen as much as a 25 per cent rise in their custom as shoppers hunted out fresh, trusted sources.
Nigel Miller, President of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland since 2011, admits that there was a fear when the crisis first emerged, that people would stop eating the meat they produce.
“I think that was absolutely the concern and I think that would be a fairly reasonable reaction.
We were probably extraordinarily lucky with our consumers in that they thought pretty hard about what they did and understood what the risks were and they’ve actually backed the quality meats that are on the shelves in Scotland.
“Maybe 20 years ago we wouldn’t have had that level of support, but we’ve had amazing support over the last few weeks.” The scandal, which involved the production of processed meat and processing plants outside Scotland, took him and colleagues by surprise.
“Like consumers and everybody else, we were horrified when the facts started to emerge and I suppose it shook our faith a bit in the system.
“I also think we felt betrayed by some of the major retailers that we work pretty hard to deliver stringent levels of traceability and very high quality levels, yet at the same time through global sourcing they were happily sourcing foods just on the basis they were low price without asking questions or if they were, certainly there was no robust trail to demonstrate quality.
“That has created a level of anger amongst many members. In some ways it is an import issue rather than a Scottish issue, but it certainly put a big question mark over what’s on a lot of the shelves or in schools — which is probably even more frightening.” Miller praises the Scottish Government and the Food Standards Agency in Scotland for being more proactive than elsewhere in its actions to start inspections on processors and manufacturers after evidence of horsemeat emerged from ‘beefburgers’ analysed in Ireland.
However, he added: “I think as we go forward, we’ve probably got to be a bit smarter and what has been revealed is that although there’s fantastic traceability at farm level, every animal has a passport, every movement is logged and abattoirs can be linked to the farm of origin.
“The Scottish system works well, but in reality we didn’t go further than that. After the abattoir we couldn’t guarantee how the goods were handled in a manufacturing plant and there is now work going on to ensure that Scottish further processing plants or manufactured meats, whether they are pies or lasagne, are audited to the same level.
“I think that’s a good thing to make sure the Scottish brand is a bit more bomb proof, we were good on the cuts of meat and steaks and that level, but once it got into pies or a lasagne it wasn’t so well done.” Miller’s farm is near Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. He describes the farm, which he runs with two of his sons, as a ‘typical Scottish upland farm’.
When he left college he worked full time as a vet in Sutherland for about three years before returning to the farm. His veterinary knowledge saw him work for Defra during the Foot and Mouth crisis.
That role brought him into the NFU side of things, although he had previously been the chairman of his local branch, and he served on the union’s livestock committee, firstly as vice president and for the last two years as president.
He was elected for a second and final term unopposed and is overseeing things at a time when there is a huge range of issues affecting farming, from the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to issues of food security, as well as ensuring farming can be sustainable — both for the land and the people working in the industry — into the future.
The age profile of the industry is still skewed towards the older generation with more than 7,000 farmers over 60 years old, 4,500 under 45 and 10,000 in between.
As many parts of the farming industry are still family-owned or at least have some family involvement, the figures would suggest that the younger generation are no longer looking to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
But Miller said: “That was very much the case up until the last seven to 10 years. In the last five years, though, we’re seeing a real resurgence of interest in farming. Some of that may be to do with the wider economy and job opportunities elsewhere being less easy, but I think there is an increasing interest in food and food production and people are choosing to adopt this lifestyle.” It is not just ‘successors’, though, young people from elsewhere are exploring going into farming.
“That’s injecting some new ideas and energy into the industry. Giving a pathway for them is a key priority — not just for us, but probably for the Government as well.” He agrees that the perception of farmers has changed during his lifetime.
“When I was younger there were some pretty bumpy times — a grain mountain and wine lakes, disease problems and BSE — and it was as if farmers were somewhat worse than politicians or estate agents and were mismanaging our countryside and were feather-bedded with subsidy.
“People do probably value a bit more what farmers do and appreciate the countryside we have, which is fantastic, really through television chefs and various other things — maybe it’s a higher disposable income or it’s just more travel — I think there’s more interest in food and where it comes from.
“Farmers’ markets and farm shops have played a role in reaching out to people and I think it’s transformed the way we think about ourselves. We probably are a lot more conscious about reaching beyond the farm gate.” One of the major pieces of legislation which will impact on farming is the reform of the Europe-wide CAP, reforms are due to come in to place in 2015 and will cover the timeperiod up until 2020.
There has been a push in Scotland to ensure that there is a better link between payments to subsidise farming and farming activity as well as ensuring that new entrants to the industry get the support they need.
Farms in Scotland receive about €130 per hectare in subsidy, compared to an average across Europe of about €260.
“Hopefully, most businesses are profitable, but a lot of them in the hills and uplands would not be profitable if they did not get direct support, or the majority wouldn’t be.” He adds: “One of the real downsides of our present system is that those that come in new to the industry don’t have a right to get any support and that means they are not only fighting to get into a new business and having to perhaps pay high rents, they’re also disadvantaged compared to existing farmers.
“The reform is quite challenging and might be difficult for a lot of existing farms, but the real positive about it is the young farmers or the new generation from 2015 will hopefully get as good support as anybody else and hopefully, we can set up the system to make sure it is always the case.
“If you come into farming and you’re going to make that pretty bold life-changing decision, which probably means you’re going to have to work part time to supplement your income, at least you get the right support you should be getting for your enterprise or land.”