Scottish farming industry leaders yesterday combined to express their concern over the “damage that could be done to rural Scotland with the current wave of euro scepticism sweeping through Westminster”.
Their move was triggered by Europe inching towards a new budget settlement that will decide the future spending of the Common Agricultural Policy and a flurry of anti-EU activity in the House of Commons.
In an open letter, the leaders – Nigel Miller of NFU Scotland, John Cameron of the Scottish Beef Cattle Association and the National Sheep Association, Alan McNaughton of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, Luke Borwick of Scottish Land & Estates, Angus McCall of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, Hamish McBean of the National Beef Association Scotland and John Gregor of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland – point out the importance of the CAP to the Scottish rural economy.
They deplored the “headline grabbing” calls in Westminster to cut ever deeper into those EU budgets that support and develop the wider economy.
There is an admission by the letter writers that the public image of EU agricultural policy was scarred in the 1980s and 1990s by an era of over-production that resulted in wine lakes and beef, grain and butter mountains.
But they claim that those days are long gone, and the debate for the next generation must focus on producing adequate and affordable food supplies while safeguarding the environment.
“The modern CAP is an engine for economic activity, while acting as an anchor to crucial agricultural activity that is key to future food security in a world where supply is no longer guaranteed,” they wrote. “In Scotland, where our iconic livestock production has been falling, the new CAP has the potential, through coupling payments to stock, to bring production back into balance.”
Far from cutting CAP funding, the letter writers maintain the forthcoming CAP must include a commitment to move funding to those member states and regions like Scotland that have been historically been disadvantaged.
Scotland is currently near the bottom of the CAP funding league, with direct farm support less than half the average rate in Europe. In rural development spending, which includes agri-environment and habitat management payments, Scotland only draws down 15 per cent of the EU average.
Cuts to those already low budgets would only erode agricultural production, risk food security, and threaten the viability of rural communities, they said, adding: “Any fracture of the rural economy will risk the maintenance of landscapes and the management of important habitats and their iconic wildlife.”
The UK government’s department for environment, food and rural affairs said that CAP funding in Scotland was relatively low because direct payments were based on historic expenditure linked to production.
“It’s essential that we avoid growth in EU spending, at a time when governments across Europe need to reduce their deficits. No sector can be exempted from the need for spending restraint,” a spokesman said.
“We want significant reform of the CAP so that, over time, production across Europe is not reliant on direct subsidies and farming can take advantage of the huge opportunities for export, particularly to developing markets.”