Scotland’s larder is a plentiful one – Aberdeen Angus beef, raspberries from Tayside, Mull of Kintyre cheddar and lamb from the Highlands and Islands. And of course, a wee dram or two. These products and many more are recognised for quality and are distinctive elements of Scotland’s food and drink sector. It’s a growing sector and both businesses and the Scottish Government want further expansion, providing more income and jobs.
But behind this success lies some serious challenges we can’t ignore. It is now widely understood that we face both climate and nature crises. Food production – from farm to fork – is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and contributor to climate change. Modern farming methods, including the use of pesticides and fertilisers, are factors in the loss of nature from our countryside.
We live in a land of plenty but food bank use is increasing and too many children and adults go hungry. It is also a sad irony that many who work in the food sector, including some farmers and crofters, as well as those in processing factories and retail and hospitality, often do so in poor conditions, are on low incomes and cannot afford good food themselves.
Meanwhile, medical professionals consider rates of obesity and being overweight to be of epidemic proportions. How did we create such a mess, where food – so essential to our lives and central to much that is good – is now at the heart of so many problems? More importantly, what can we do to fix this?
A good place to start is to put on our metaphorical wellies and get out on the farm. Whilst there are a good many problems facing farming, it is is part of the solution. How we grow our food and how we use farmland, both now and in the future, will be a key part of our response to climate change.
Adopting greener and more ecological farming methods, including organic farming, is paramount in order to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers and crofters can also maintain, create and restore wildlife habitats, such as hedgerows, field margins, species-rich grassland and peatlands – action that both helps nature and stores carbon. Widescale adoption of such nature-based solutions to climate change is part of the transformation we need when it comes to how we use land.
Farmers and crofters need financial support and advice to help them change and adapt their businesses. However, recently the Scottish Government was criticised by the UK Committee on Climate Change for falling behind in developing the right policies to achieve this in the face of Brexit and a potential end to the Common Agriculture Policy. The Government has now published an Agriculture Bill that, if passed, will ensure it is able to not only make payments to farmers on leaving the EU, but also develop and pilot some new policy approaches. Yet this draft legislation falls short of setting out the ambitious and transformative ideas needed in the coming years to help farmers respond to the climate and nature emergencies. With the clock ticking, there is no time to waste.
Farming is only one part of a much wider food system. If we really want to make progress, and address all the ills in our food system, we need collaborative efforts and big ideas. For some time Scotland has had ambitions to be a Good Food Nation – a place where food plays a positive role in all our lives. Achieving this is only possible with the right conditions. To this end, we need a national food plan setting out the policies and proposals that will tackle problems such as food poverty, diet-related ill-health, conditions for food workers, and the climate and nature crises.
We must also set ambitious targets for reducing the use of chemicals, preventing obesity and increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables grown and consumed in Scotland. We need a formally recognised Scottish Food Commission to provide independent scrutiny of our food system and drive progress. These elements all need legislation to make them happen and the Scottish Government’s commitment to bring forward a draft Good Food Nation Bill in the coming year is therefore very welcome. RSPB Scotland, along with our partners in the Scottish Food Coalition, hope that this law will break new ground and set Scotland on a path that other nations will want to follow. If ever there was a time for boldness, it’s now.
Vicki Swales, head of land use policy, RSPB Scotland.