Amy Corrigan: Small steps make world of difference for Scottish agriculture

Current system is failing us all, but there are signs of a change at the grassroots, writes Amy Corrigan
Most of Scotlands landscapes are shaped in some way by agricultural activities. Picture: TSPLMost of Scotlands landscapes are shaped in some way by agricultural activities. Picture: TSPL
Most of Scotlands landscapes are shaped in some way by agricultural activities. Picture: TSPL

From the iconic Highland cattle that graze heather moorland to the spring sown cereal fields that eventually bring us whisky, farming and crofting are part of Scotland. As well as producing food, we owe much of our rich wildlife to thousands of years of agricultural activity. Farming and crofting are at the heart of many rural communities providing livelihoods and employment, and most of Scotland’s landscapes are shaped in some way by agricultural activities. The way we produce food has a profound effect on the country we live in; but the system is in crisis.

Our current approach to producing food, promoted by years of government policy, technological advances and market signals, is a significant factor in dramatic declines in farmland wildlife. Species such as lapwing and kestrel are fast disappearing and other species such as corn bunting are hanging on, but in now very localised populations. But the problem is bigger and much more complex than this.

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Our current food system is failing farmers and Scottish citizens as well as wildlife. It is commodity focused, intensive, specialised, input reliant and dominated by commercial interests. Farmers and crofters are left extremely vulnerable to market volatility, dependent on subsidy, often disconnected from the end “product” and its “consumers” and in a poorly understood and often under-valued profession. Scots for their part pay three times for their food: once in subsidy paid from taxes direct to land managers via the Common Agricultural Policy; once in the shop or market when they purchase food; and, again via taxes and utility bills needed to clean up the problems caused by our food production system – for example treating polluted drinking water.

Scottish citizens are often only able to access foods high in salt and sugar and embodied energy and water, or foods that have been transported large distances. Diet-related disease and ill-health is also soaring because the foods people can access, and are encouraged to eat, are often no good for them. Of course, this only skims the surface but it is already clear the challenges are substantial and the need for change urgent.

RSPB Scotland sees a brighter future for Scottish food and farming: one that secures resilient, viable and valued livelihoods for more farmers and crofters and produces high quality, healthy food for Scottish people and connects them to their food in a meaningful way. We see farmers managing their land working with nature not against it. We see increased access to and understanding of land and growing for ourselves and no-one going hungry. In short, we see a future in which we produce food for people and planet, not merely as commodities for sale.

We know this future is possible because it is already here. Think of the rise of farm shops and of high-quality food products that innovative land managers are producing here in Scotland. Add to this the young crofters and slow food movements and the growing number of small growers and community-based gardens and allotments.

Importantly there is support from Scottish Government for all of the above activities in the form of grants, policies and ambitions. Not least is the establishment of a Food Commission and the visions of Scotland becoming both a Good Food Nation, demonstrating that it is possible to produce good food, make a living and regain some balance with nature. But there is a lot more work to be done if we are really going to crack this nut.

l Amy Corrigan is Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland