Agriculture Bill: The future of Scottish farming is under severe threat and SNP government must act – Jonnie Hall, NFU Scotland

In responding to the Scottish Government consultation on an Agriculture Bill, NFU Scotland will set out a clear, unequivocal message that, from powers to policy to practice, agricultural activity and production must be prioritised in the future.

Farmers and crofters need clear commitments about future funding (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Farmers and crofters need clear commitments about future funding (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Although the deadline for responses to the Scottish Government consultation on an Agriculture Bill has been extended to December 5, our submission will go in this week. It is an extremely comprehensive and detailed response, in which we will make it clear that while a new Bill is needed to create the necessary powers that will come into force from 2025, it is how those powers are used that will be critical.

That response will have been crafted following the most comprehensive engagement with farmers and crofters undertaken by the union. Staff and officeholders have travelled the length and breadth of Scotland at roadshows and meetings and many hundreds more have taken part in online webinars.

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What is abundantly clear is that the future of Scottish agriculture, and all it underpins, is under severe threat. While climate, nature and wider rural development issues remain, they cannot and will not be addressed by a disregard for the needs of Scottish agriculture.

It is more critical than ever that Scotland has a new agricultural policy to underpin sustainable and profitable agricultural businesses so that they can deliver agricultural production first and foremost – and not least because of a rapidly changing food security context.

Agricultural activity and production are the drivers of change – the means to meet the intended outcomes. It is essential that the powers and policy intended to deliver key outcomes firstly align with the needs of Scottish agriculture and, secondly, do so in a way that enables farming and crofting to deliver what is increasingly expected of them. Fostering sustainable and profitable agricultural businesses is the only route to delivering all the required outcomes for food, drink, climate change, biodiversity, rural communities, and the rural economy.

Scotland’s farmers and crofters also need clear commitments on future funding – a dedicated and sufficient budget committed on a multi-annual basis and ringfenced, with the significant majority of that budget allocated to those who are actively farming and crofting to ensure the delivery of intended outcomes through a new support payments framework.

However, creating powers and committing resources is not sufficient – it is how they are used which matters most. How NFU Scotland would like to see policy proposals developed is not new to our members or the Scottish Government. They were initiated by the union in the publication, Steps to Change, in March 2018 and have been fine-tuned ever since.

However, the frustration vented by the farming and crofting community in recent times – not least by the 400 farmers and crofters at the recent #FoodNeedsAFarmer rally outside Holyrood last month – is a sign that the Scottish Government needs to be clearer as to how the new powers will be used. Critical questions remain unanswered on scope, eligibility, conditionality, and money to be attached to any new tiers of agricultural and rural development funding after 2025.

Farming and crofting are long-term businesses. Right now, farming and crofting need a future support policy which drives agricultural activity and food production, to generate confidence and investment in the short and long-term and deliver effectively on the Scottish Government’s targets for both climate and biodiversity.

Future funding must attract and sustain commitment from all active farmers and crofters. It must foster productivity, efficiency, and resilience through accessible management options, whilst also recognising and rewarding good practice. It must combine to enhance agricultural management and agricultural business performance, whilst at the same time significantly contributing to desired outcomes relating to climate, nature, and wider rural development.

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Farmers and crofters need a future support regime in Scotland that strengthens agricultural output, together with practical measures to help cut emissions and enhance biodiversity. The new Agriculture Bill, and how its powers are used, must enable this.

What the new Bill must not deliver is increasing layers of additional red tape and additional costs in the pursuit of goals that may add little or nothing to the bottom line of too many agricultural businesses already facing extreme financial pressures over and above other socio-economic issues.

The proposed powers, and ultimately how they are used, must have regard for the practicalities of managing a viable and profitable farm or croft. The proposed powers must not expose this generation of farmers and crofters to stark choices that might only result in agricultural land abandonment – and they must give opportunity to those who would have hoped to follow.

NFU Scotland echoes Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon’s comments to the Scottish Parliament on November 8 in saying “there is no contradiction between high-quality food production and producing it in a way that delivers for climate and nature” and “… sustainable food production… is an outcome that we know can only be reached by working with our producers”.

Only with the buy-in of farmers and crofters across Scotland can new primary legislation turn policies into practices that deliver on high-quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration and wider rural development – simultaneously. It is the duty of the Scottish Government to help make that happen. However, while this consultation may be about delivering the necessary powers via a new Agriculture Bill, it does not fill the alarming policy void that farmers and crofters currently face – which is simply compounding the severe volatility and extreme uncertainty already affecting so many producers in Scotland.

A clear, unwavering commitment that future policy will underpin agricultural activity and food production is required immediately. If the pursuit of a misplaced vision is all that matters, then Scotland’s future ‘agricultural support’ policy will fail.

Jonnie Hall is director of policy at NFU Scotland

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