Agriculture Bill at Holyrood now can be strenghtened to help planet – Andrew Stark

Farmers should be supported to enable them meet climate targets and enhance nature, argues Andrew Stark

Andrew Stark, Land Use Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland
Andrew Stark, Land Use Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland

The pandemic and the disruption it caused have demonstrated the importance of farms and supply chains. Yet, because of the nature and climate emergencies, we knew that farms already had a vital role to play in transforming our futures. Before Holyrood right now is an Agriculture Bill that will have far reaching outcomes on whether and how farming does just that. Before the Bill is passed into law, there is a chance for us to strengthen it and support farmers to take greater action for nature and the climate.

Whilst a member of the EU, the UK’s farming sector was supported through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This determined budgets for farming support – that is, what payments should be made to farmers and for what purposes. Across the UK as a whole, farm payments amount to £3.5 billion each year, with Scottish farmers receiving approximately £650 million of this. Under CAP rules, the lion’s share of this money is currently given to farmers based largely on how much land they farm and only a small proportion supports environmental action.

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At the end of this year, the transition period for the UK leaving the EU will end. At that point, decisions regarding future farming policy and payments will fall to governments in the four UK countries.

To avoid total disruption to the farming sector, especially more so in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Government has chosen to use this Bill to adopt much of the CAP into Scots law. This means the CAP system of payments will continue until the Scottish Government develops a new and better farming policy. The Bill also gives Scottish ministers the power to make “simplifications and improvements” to the CAP payment schemes during this transition period. Thus, MSPs must ensure these payments not only help farmers to address the climate and nature crisis but help them to adapt and develop their businesses to produce food sustainably.

Four big coalitions of Scottish organisations, including the Scottish Food Coalition (SFC), Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS), Scottish Environment LINK (LINK) and the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), as well as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, want to see the Bill strengthened by the inclusion of a “purpose clause”.

As the Bill passes through the final stages in Parliament, we are pressing for such an amendment. Securing it would mean any changes ministers propose to the current CAP regulations and payments in the next few years would have to be for specified purposes spelled out in the Bill. These would include helping farmers to meet climate targets and maintain and enhance wildlife and landscapes, improve animal welfare or to encourage innovation and resilience in agriculture and support more local food supply chains.

Scotland has a unique agricultural landscape, with 70 per cent of land used for agriculture and 40 per cent of that identified as High Nature Value farming areas. This means traditional farming and crofting methods on rich biodiverse landscapes, such as machair habitats on the Western Isles, play a vital role in supporting the diversity of wildlife found there. Farm payments should help to maintain these unique landscapes, restore and enhance nature and landscapes more widely, or improve the soil health which underpins food production. A purpose clause must ensure that the large sums of public money spent on farming benefit all of society.

Scotland now has an opportunity to show how farming here can play its role in responding to the climate and nature crises and contribute to a green recovery out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Making sure farm payments have this as a clear purpose – and amending the Agriculture Bill now – is essential. You can help with this by supporting SCCS, LINK, the SFC and the NFFN in their call for a purposes clause to the Agriculture Bill. To find out more, visit e-activist.com/page/64646/petition/1?ea.tracking.id=scotenews.

Andrew Stark, Land Use Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland

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