Magic climate change route for farming policy

It’s one of those intriguing phrases which tends to attract one’s attention - and, while I’m not a member of the Magic Circle, I watched enough of Paul Daniels back in the day to know that it’s also a trick used by stage magicians and conjurors to misdirect your attention only to surprise you with the big reveal later.

Jeremy Moody of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers
Jeremy Moody of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers

So when I was contacted recently by that master of legislative interpretation, Jeremy Moody - the brains behind the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers and who has a fearsome knack of getting to the root of policy proposals – ‘for a chat’, I was swiftly hooked when he told me he thought that the Scottish Government’s elusive route map for the future direction of agricultural policy might be just that - hidden in plain sight.

Talking me through what even he admitted was a circuitous path, he concluded that, despite what many in the industry seemed to believe, the administration may well have delivered on the promise in last September’s Scottish Programme for Government to “bring forward recommendations for new mechanisms of agricultural support”.

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“It seems that something of that pledge may have been honoured,” Moody told me, indicating that things had gone further than the tweaking to the CAP which was outlined in the earlier Stability and Simplicity document drawn up back in 2018.

But - and here’s the crux of this sleight of hand - this New Route Map hasn’t been posted up where farmers were looking for it - and the general headlines for Scotland’s future agricultural policy appear to have been pretty firmly set out in the recently released update on the Scottish Climate Change Plan.

And while there might be a risk of setting hares running with some of the supposition, it was almost as if Paul Daniels had left it up to Debbie McGee to pull the rabbit out of the hat - if we dare to replace Paul with rural economy cab sec Fergus Ewing and Debbie with Roseanna Cunningham, his counterpart at the environment department.

The proposals laid out are, perhaps unsurprisingly, motivated by achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions - with ‘environmental conditionality’ for payments requiring some pretty major changes in the way food is produced by moving farming to low emissions methods.

Another sign of movement in the Update seems to be the Scottish Government’s recognition that it has left the EU, and now needs to replace the CAP rather than shoring it up.

With the overarching policy focusing on delivering the 75% reduction in emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2040, rural land management will play a leading role but there is an undertaking to support productive agriculture, where it can fit with this aim, through “new schemes and approaches” for farming.

Moody also noted that agricultural policies are to be set within a wider rural policy to “optimise uses beyond traditional farming and food production” - with forestry planting, peatland restoration and biomass production playing key roles in the wide rural economy – as well as offering alternatives for those wishing to retire from more traditional and often demanding agricultural practices.

But the indication is that increased biodiversity and reduced emissions will be achieved by making environmental conditionality a requirement for “reliable” payments to farmers. This “quid pro quo” “approach, means the industry will be expected to farm in different ways in order to reduce emissions to get payments, with a transitional period leading to new policies which will include a wider review of the existing greening regulations in 2022.

So it looks like while food production will remain important, farmers will be expected to change production methods, including the increased use of low emission farming measures - with the Agricultural Transformation Fund being expanded to support investment.

And as Ewing told the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, along with peatland, forestry and biomass, he was confident that such an approach would be a substantial element of the way forward.

So while there might still be a need for a considerable quantity of meat to be applied to these bare bones - hopefully through inclusion of recommendations in the farmer-led Climate Change Groups - Moody’s typically understated conclusion was:

“For the scale of change, it has perhaps been little heralded”.

Or, as Paul Daniels might have put it:

”You’ll like it...not a lot, but you’ll like it.”

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