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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Agriculture Support and Food Security, National Planning Framework 4, Remembrance Commemorations and Support for Veterans and Armed Forces Community, Urgent Question, Decision Time, Gene-editing Technology, Correction


Agriculture Support and Food Security

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Mairi Gougeon on future agricultural support and food security in Scotland. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

Today, I will set out clearly the approach that the Scottish Government will take in the coming years to reforming support for agriculture, and I will update Parliament on our food security work.

In March this year, I was delighted to announce Scotland’s vision for agriculture, which is a vision that has food production at its heart. It makes clear our support for farmers and crofters in providing the country with healthy, nutritious food, while also ensuring that Scotland meets its world-leading climate and nature restoration outcomes. From the outset, there is a point of principle that I wish to make clear: there is no contradiction between high-quality food production and producing it in a way that delivers for climate and nature. That was clear in the reports of the farmer-led groups, which are the blueprint for the detail in our future policy.

Our vision for agriculture is rooted in that understanding. It sets out proudly our ambition that our producers, and so our nation, are recognised as global leaders in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Since publishing our vision, we have, of course, seen the implications of the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Although immediate supplies of food are secure, we continue to remain concerned—as are most countries—about the production, supply and price of produce, and the need to do more to protect and support our food and drink sector.

Through the challenges of Brexit, Covid-19 and now the on-going war in Ukraine, we have seen just how resilient the food sector is. However, it continues to face significant challenges that put at risk its ability to provide accessible and affordable produce.

Earlier this year, together with industry, I set up a short-life food security and supply task force to monitor, identify and respond to any potential disruption to food security and supply resulting from the impact of the on-going conflict in Ukraine. The final report of the task force, which was published on 23 June, contained a series of recommendations. We have worked since then to deliver on those recommendations.

We have already delivered a new food and drink-focused business support landing page, which went live on 14 July, and the Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland have opened engagement with the Groceries Code Adjudicator, having met with it in the summer.

Another key recommendation in the report was the establishment of a dedicated food security unit, which we reaffirmed our commitment to in this year’s programme for government. The unit is now being established in the Scottish Government, with a view to monitoring on-going supply chain vulnerabilities and linking with future food security work.

The task force also recognised that the United Kingdom Government holds many of the levers that could help to address the issues that currently affect the food and drink sector, among the most significant of which are CO2 shortages and sharp increases in fertiliser, energy and fuel costs. It was recommended that the Scottish Government should raise those matters with the UK Government, and I subsequently wrote to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but there has been no response to that communication to date. I have since raised those critical matters again with the latest secretary of state, Thérèse Coffey, and I will continue to urge the UK Government to take immediate action.

The task force report outlined that there could be further meetings of the group in a monitoring capacity. We met on 11 October, and a further meeting will be arranged in the coming months. I will, of course, keep Parliament updated as we make further progress on the task force’s recommendations.

Sustainable food production is an outcome that we know can be achieved only by working with our producers, rural Scotland and our nation more broadly. That thinking is at the heart of all that we do. The task force that I co-chaired with the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink exemplified that joined-up Government and industry approach. Likewise, I have been delighted to have the president of NFU Scotland as my co-chair of the agriculture reform implementation oversight board since its inception last August.

That partnership work is a driving force of our national test programme. For example, in track 1 of the programme, on preparing for sustainable farming, we listened to the needs of the industry, and are supporting businesses to undertake carbon audits and soil sampling. Those elements are live and open for claims, and we know from discussion with the sector that many farms are already engaging in that work.

We will add measures to our national test programme as it develops in the coming years, including measures to improve animal health and biodiversity. Those tools help farmers and crofters to prepare for the coming changes by creating a baseline from which they can build environmentally and economically resilient businesses.

Similarly, in the second track of the NTP, on testing actions for sustainable farming, we are working with farmers and crofters across Scotland and taking the measures presented by the farmer-led groups to establish future conditions for support that really can and will work.

We launched a public consultation on our proposals for a future agriculture bill in August, and the Scottish Government is now hosting in-person and online events across the country to ensure that we hear from all who wish to contribute to the consultation on the bill and the powers that are needed to deliver our vision. I know from those events, from the rally at Parliament last week and from listening to farmers and crofters directly that there is a real desire to understand more about the next steps and discuss the detail.

Our consultation outlines the model for future support payments and sets out a four-tier support system of base support payments and enhanced, elective and complementary support tiers, which will provide comprehensive powers to support our food producers to farm in a sustainable and regenerative way. However, the climate and nature crises that we face mean that we cannot simply wait for the implementation of those new powers. That is why we are already progressing and testing our proposed approach through our national test programme and delivering action on farm today.

We will go further than that. I confirm today that I will deliver new conditionality under existing powers for the 2025 single application form calendar year. That will use our existing agriculture support schemes to introduce enhanced conditionality that is built directly on the work of the farmer-led groups. It will also deliver on our manifesto commitment and the statement in our vision for agriculture on integrating enhanced conditionality of at least half of all funding by 2025. I am therefore signalling my intention to Parliament to bring forward legislation to amend the 2020 act to enable the first part of the transition.

I turn to the new agriculture bill. Under the proposed bill powers, the enhanced payment will be our key mechanism to deliver positive outcomes for climate and for nature. It will also allow for those who are pioneering best practice right now to be recognised and rewarded. I know that that is a concern. Many farmers and crofters have already been leading the way in the actions that they have been undertaking on farm, and it is only right and fair that that is recognised.

During the fortnight of the 27th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP27—it could not be more clear that we need to support our farmers and crofters to tackle climate change. Equally, as we approach the biodiversity COP15 in Montreal, the need to restore our natural environment is coming into ever sharper focus. We will soon publish a new biodiversity strategy that will set out our vision to 2045 and outcomes that are required to address the on-going decline in biodiversity.

It is for those reasons that I am prioritising the co-development of the enhanced element of the new framework. I will work with the industry to ensure that we get that right. It is my intention that that will be launched in 2026, using the powers that are proposed in the bill consultation. We will balance the ambition of that approach with the need to take the industry with us on the journey. That will not happen overnight, but it will reflect the sector’s willingness to engage and our commitment to a just transition.

Once we have established the enhanced mechanism, we will seek to deliver further elements of the future support framework, including elective and complementary schemes, such as future incarnations of the agri-environment scheme and the Farm Advisory Service. Our approach means that the present payment regions will be kept as they are in the early part of the transition. I can confirm that we remain committed to reviewing the current three-region model to ensure that the tier 1 base payment is fit for purpose for the future.

I recognise that this statement does not answer all the queries that I have had about the exact detail of the schemes. More information will be made available over the coming months as we develop the proposals. However, we know that many farmers and crofters are already undertaking the necessary actions that we want to be taken now and for the future. I encourage farmers and crofters to engage with the support that is available to learn and find out more, regardless of where they are on their transformation journey. They should join the national test programme and look at our networks—the integrating trees network, the agriculture, biodiversity and climate change network, the farming for a better climate initiative and the Farm Advisory Service. Those networks and services offer peer-to-peer learning and support and show how, for example, improving soils, enhancing nature and adapting or changing practices have improved the efficiency, resilience and profitability of businesses.

I have set out the pathway to reform of agricultural support in Scotland. Scotland’s vision for agriculture is about enabling the essential role that our food producers play in our food security and feeding our nation, in driving our rural economy and in ensuring that our world-renowned food and drink industry can deliver our climate and nature outcomes. Only our farmers, crofters and land managers can deliver those outcomes, and all of Scotland owes a debt of support to them. As we transition to the future, I reiterate my commitments that we will communicate clearly, will ensure that there is a just transition and that there are no cliff edges in support, and will continue to develop the details with our farmers and crofters.

Finally, I reiterate my commitment and the Scottish Government’s commitment that we will continue to support our nation’s food producers.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance sight of her statement.

Farmers provide the fantastic Scottish produce that we eat and enjoy, but that is not all: they are at the front lines of our efforts to tackle climate change. I am very pleased that the cabinet secretary acknowledged that in her statement. Innovation and well-meaning farmers are driving us towards becoming a net zero nation and protecting dwindling numbers of ground-nesting birds in Scotland.

However, the Scottish National Party-Green Government is holding Scottish farmers back from doing what they do best. It seems to be making decisions based on ideology, not reality. Over the past week, farmers have come to the doors of the Parliament, pleading with the Government to listen to them and give them the support that they urgently need. They are asking for details on the new agriculture bill, which will impact their work; they want to know why they cannot take advantage of safe gene-editing technology, given that farmers south of the border can do so; and they need to know what is happening with the future of farm payments.

I therefore ask the cabinet secretary: will she listen and give farmers clear answers, or will she go on ignoring Scotland’s rural communities?

Mairi Gougeon

I refute those accusations. We are not ignoring communities; we are listening to them.

Rachael Hamilton was at the rally last week, as was I, and as were a number of MSPs from across the parties, to listen to farmers and crofters. A key element of my role as cabinet secretary is to get out and meet farmers and crofters across the country, to hear their concerns about what they are experiencing. To be fair, I also outlined in my statement that we are listening to our farmers and crofters. I completely understand that point about wanting more details, which is why I emphasised in my statement that more details of the enhanced support mechanism will come out in due course.

Listening is a critical element of our development of future policy. As I made clear in my statement, we want to develop our future agricultural support system in conjunction with our farmers and crofters, because we want to make sure that we have a future support system that works for our food producers as well as delivering on all our targets for climate and nature. That is of critical importance to me in my role, and I will continue to do it.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

The clock is ticking towards the end of the transition period, and it is ticking when it comes to meeting our climate commitments. The only clock that seems to have stopped over the past six years has been the Government’s. When it comes to post-Brexit agricultural support, we have had dither and delay, but not detail. Although the cabinet secretary has set out today an element of a timetable for change, we—and, more important, our farmers and crofters—still do not know what that change will mean.

The cabinet secretary has said that she will deliver new conditionality under existing powers, to meet the commitment to deliver 50 per cent environmental conditionality on direct payments for the 2025 single application form calendar year, but there is still no detail on what farmers and crofters will be expected to do to unlock that conditional support. When will individual businesses see the exact detail, so that they can plan and get on with the job of continuing to deliver good-quality food while meeting our climate commitments?

Mairi Gougeon

Today, we have taken an important step in setting out that timescale. I hope that that provides some certainty to the industry as to what will be coming—including changes—and when.

However, I also point to the part of my statement in which I talked in particular about going around the country to speak to farmers and crofters and see all the good practice that already exists. So many of our food producers are undertaking the practices that we want to see and doing what they can to lower emissions and enhance nature and biodiversity on farm, producing food all the while.

That is also why we are running the national test programme. A key part of that programme is to get those who may not have started on that transformation journey to undertake carbon audits and soil testing, in order to get that baseline and to see where their business is starting from and what actions can be taken from that point. What we are rolling out through that programme will become the basis of conditionality for the future. As I said in my previous response, we will make those further details available in the coming months.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Amid the positivity of what the cabinet secretary has set out today, the elephant in the room—Brexit—is still there. Our trade in goods with the European Union was 12 per cent lower in 2021 because of Brexit and it has been reported that the cost of lost exports to the EU is more than £2.2 billion. The food and drink sector in Scotland has been blighted by the hard Brexit that has been pursued by the United Kingdom Government, and our agricultural industries are threatened by its consequences. How does the Scottish Government intend to provide certainty and clarity to those sectors, given the chaos that has been visited on them by the UK Government?

Mairi Gougeon

This has been a tumultuous time for the industry and we know that the UK Government’s actions have exacerbated the issues that it faces.

From our analysis, we can see that our trade in goods with the EU was 12 per cent lower in 2021 because of Brexit. That is the cost of the choices that were made to remove Scotland from the world’s biggest single market.

Members will no doubt be aware of the reports that came out last week revealing His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data that put a figure of more than £2.2 billion as the cost of lost exports to the EU.

We have seen a 52 per cent fall in exports of fruit and vegetables and a 25 per cent fall in exports of dairy and eggs in the first half of this year compared with the same period when we were in the single market.

Contrary to the shocking collateral damage to farming that the UK’s actions have caused, my intention is to provide as much clarity and certainty as we can through our reform journey.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I have been part of a family farming partnership for more than 40 years.

Cabinet secretary, I welcome your statement, although it is woefully short on details. As you know, farmers plan years in advance and they need to know about subsidy payments being made in 2025 now, not tomorrow. Let us see whether we can get an answer to my question. Will you confirm that all farmers will have access to all the potential agrifarming funding that replaces the single farm payment scheme, and that some will not be excluded from all that funding because they are not in priority areas or they do not have priority habitats? In the interest of brevity, I will happily accept a yes or no answer, cabinet secretary.

I ask that members speak through the chair at all times, please.

Mairi Gougeon

Today, I am trying to set out that, in 2025, we will see a roll over of all those schemes. We have said—we set this out in our manifesto—that we will be introducing conditionality on at least half of those payments in 2025. That is exactly what we will be doing at that time.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has indicated its aim to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. High nature value agriculture is prevalent in places such as Uist in my constituency, where agricultural activities on the machair support such high levels of biodiversity. Given that, how can the Government support crofters in high nature value areas to ensure that they continue to work and support nature and biodiversity?

Mairi Gougeon

Much crofting land is recognised as being of high nature value. The traditional low-intensity management and the mixture of activities that are associated with crofting support a special range of species and habitats. One example of that is the internationally renowned machair of Uist.

Each year, through a range of support schemes that we have available, the Scottish Government invests heavily in croft businesses. By taking action to ensure that future support mechanisms complement one another, we can optimise the unique role that crofting plays in the sustainability of many rural and island communities and their landscapes.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to hear from the minister’s statement that action is being taken to improve food security in Scotland, because increasing local food procurement will reduce our carbon emissions and our reliance on imports.

As highlighted by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, low pay and insecure work are endemic throughout our food supply chains. That issue must be addressed if we are to tackle food insecurity. Will the minister give a commitment that improving pay and conditions for agricultural workers will be a condition of future agriculture support?

Mairi Gougeon

The member has raised some really important points. We have consulted on some of those proposals in our bill consultation. Obviously, I will not pre-empt the results of that consultation. I urge the member to take part in that. We are committed to fair work.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary clarify that we are discussing the development of enabling legislation that will give the industry the scope to respond to potential future challenges? NFU Scotland’s director of policy, Jonnie Hall, previously said:

“Put simply, the Bill is not policy and it does not, and will not, set policy.”

Will the cabinet secretary set out some of the advantages and flexibilities that the Scottish Government’s approach allows for, to better support our hard-working food-producing farmers?

Mairi Gougeon

As I have outlined, we should consider the challenges from and impact of global shocks such as Brexit, the pandemic and the illegal invasion of Ukraine in recent years. Those have emphasised why we need an adaptive and flexible framework for the future. We do not know what technological changes or other events might take place in the future, so we must ensure that we have in place a payment system and support structure that can adapt to not just challenges but future opportunities.

I know that there has been some criticism of the approach of bringing forward proposals for enabling legislation, but it is right for the industry to have flexibility now and in the future in order to respond to the various pressures and challenges that we will face. That is what our consultation sets out.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Given that three quarters of Scotland’s land is under agricultural management, our farmers and crofters will play an essential role in our national effort to prevent climate and nature breakdown. The enhanced payment will be key to supporting and incentivising their efforts. Is it not the case that stronger cross-compliance conditionality in tier 1 will mean that 100 per cent of agriculture payments will align behind the three goals of nature, climate and high-quality food production?

Mairi Gougeon

The support that we currently provide to farmers and crofters through basic payments already requires them, through cross-compliance and greening, to farm sustainably. Today, I have set out how we will go further in order to achieve the goal of high-quality food production while restoring nature and tackling climate change.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

The Scottish farm business income estimates that were published in March this year show that more than half of farms have diversified activities that generate additional—and often essential—income for their businesses.

In the future, diversification projects could involve ways of increasing levels of on-farm biodiversity while maintaining production. To what extent might the enhanced payment support farmers in that regard?

Mairi Gougeon

As the member will be aware, and as I have outlined today, we are committed to shifting 50 per cent of direct payments to climate action and funding for on-farm nature restoration and enhancement by 2025. That will give farmers and crofters the opportunity to demonstrate the positive action that they are taking to address climate change and support nature. It will also reward the action that is already taking place, which is an important part of what I outlined today.

However, we will continue to offer elective payments for nature. We need to co-design the detail of the enhanced and elective payment tiers, and we want to support farmer choice and to promote, rather than constrain, opportunities.

As part of our national test programme, the testing actions for sustainable farming that I outlined look directly at what measures could form part of the enhanced payment tier. We are working with internal and external stakeholders to produce a suite of measures that might be appropriate conditions for an enhanced payment. Those include a range of biodiversity measures and animal health and welfare measures, which were co-designed with NatureScot. The measures will be refined using a multicriteria approach, and we will simultaneously be mindful of production and the impact on farm business income and sustainability. Subsequent stages of the programme will involve refining the measures and then assessing how they can best be implemented in a future framework.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I welcome what has been said about the work of crofters and farmers who are already making the transition to more sustainable means, thereby addressing the climate and nature crises. However, I have heard serious concerns from those in the sector about the lack of detailed information, which is needed to make long-term plans for their future business.

Does the cabinet secretary recognise that, for aspiring young crofters and farmers, the lack of clarity might be hindering entry to the sector? Does she also recognise the anxiety that such uncertainty causes and its impact more generally on the mental health and wellbeing of those in the agriculture community?

Mairi Gougeon

I completely understand those concerns, which is why, in my statement, I outlined another step on that journey and tried to set out the timescales and at least give clarity and certainty as to what people can expect in the next few years. I realise that that does not answer all the questions about further detail, and I acknowledged that in my statement. That is why I also said in my statement that we will be bringing forward more of the detail in the coming months.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

I recently met a farmer from my constituency who advised me of his concerns about rising costs in operating his farm and producing beef and lamb. I am acutely aware that the main levers to ease that burden sit with the UK Government. When did the cabinet secretary last engage with DEFRA on the rising costs of farming and food production, which are causing great concern across the agriculture sector?

Mairi Gougeon

As I outlined in my statement, one of the key recommendations of the food security and supply task force was that the Scottish Government should raise those matters with the UK Government. On the back of that, I wrote to the DEFRA secretary of state to highlight that we had published the report, and I followed that up with other correspondence seeking a reply. We know that there have been a number of changes in the UK Government in that time, but we are yet to receive a response on those critical and urgent matters. I reassure the member and others across the chamber that I continue to press the UK Government on those matters, and I have already raised them with the new DEFRA secretary of state, Thérèse Coffey.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I welcome the mention of food security in the statement. It is critical that we get food security right, due to the war in Ukraine. However, the SNP-Green coalition is not taking food security seriously enough. Little or no clarity has been provided on its agriculture bill proposals, and there is certainly not enough clarity in the statement. It does nothing to address the total lack of clarity with regard to payments, and it raises more questions than answers, in the vacuum of information that already exists. We are all tired of hearing the Government saying that more details will be forthcoming. Did the SNP-Green Government learn nothing from last week’s rally outside the Parliament, when farmers expressed their concerns? When will the Government prioritise our farmers and food security?

Mairi Gougeon

The Government has prioritised food security. I believe that we were one of the only parts of the UK that established a task force specifically to consider the issue. In our vision for agriculture that we published earlier this year, high-quality food production is one of the key pillars, and it is a key part of our future support framework. As I have reiterated and emphasised in my statement, I was out at the rally that the member mentioned, and I listened to the farmers and crofters. I also listen to them when I travel across the country to speak to them. I understand the point about more detail, but we are committed to supporting the food producers in this country, including supporting them through the transition that I have set out the path towards today.