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Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 25, 2023


Agriculture Policy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-09146, in the name of Finlay Carson, on behalf of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, on future agriculture policy in Scotland.

I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible. We are very tight for time, so I will be enforcing the time limits pretty robustly.


Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I am pleased to open this afternoon’s debate on behalf of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee. The committee is holding the debate as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s proposals for future agriculture policy. The purpose of that work is to inform the committee’s consideration of the Scottish Government’s proposed agriculture bill, which the committee expects to be introduced sometime later this year.

It is vital that we set the right direction for Scottish agriculture for the years ahead. We need to have a strong agriculture sector that can provide us with a secure and sustainable food supply, that maintains our high standards of food production and that helps us to tackle the twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss, and, in doing so, ensures that our rural communities are viable and supported.

To achieve those aims, any new agriculture policy needs to provide our farmers, crofters and other food producers with the support, investment and—this is equally important—the clear direction that are needed in order for us to make a just transition towards a more sustainable future.

The Scottish Government launched its consultation on its proposals for a new agriculture bill in August last year. Those proposals centre on a new farm payment framework to replace the common agricultural policy following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Payments under the new framework will be subject to greater conditionality with regard to nature restoration and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions

In February, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands shared with the committee a route map for agricultural reform that sets out a high-level timescale for the transition towards the future agriculture support framework. Although that information is, of course, welcome, a common thread running through the evidence that the committee has heard so far has been the concern that food producers and other agriculture stakeholders have voiced about the lack of information and detail from the Scottish Government about what a new agriculture policy intends to achieve and how it will achieve it.

The committee would therefore welcome any further information from the cabinet secretary about the Government’s proposed future agriculture policy and more clarity on the timescale for the introduction of the agriculture bill to Parliament.

The committee began its pre-legislative scrutiny in February and has heard evidence from a considerable number of individuals and organisations representing farmers and crofters, land managers and many other players in Scotland’s food supply chain. I take the opportunity to thank everyone who gave evidence to support the committee’s work. The committee took a thematic approach to gathering evidence about what a future farm payment system should look like. We held evidence sessions on climate change mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration, biodiversity loss and resilience within the food production and supply chain.

We also heard from a broad range of groups and organisations that have been involved in developing, and will be at the heart of implementing, a new agriculture policy. Those included the farmer-led climate change groups that reported in 2021 and the agricultural reform implementation oversight board. Key industry bodies engaged with the committee, including NFU Scotland, Quality Meat Scotland and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. We also heard from organisations focused on the role of agriculture in addressing climate change, including NatureScot, RSPB Scotland, the Climate Change Committee and Farming for 1.5°.

All witnesses, without exception, recognised the urgent need to reduce emissions from agriculture in order to meet our challenging net zero goals and to tackle the worrying decline in biodiversity. The capacity for future payment schemes based on conditionality for emissions reduction was explored. Although there was broad agreement that a payment scheme is the best vehicle to achieve that, there were concerns about the potential impact that some of the suggested measures—particularly the reduction in livestock numbers to meet methane reduction targets—might have on agriculture.

NFU Scotland and Quality Meat Scotland, as well as the farmer-led groups, were concerned about the loss of the critical mass of livestock numbers, which might lead to a decline in Scotland’s food production supply chain as it became less economically sustainable. NFUS stated:

“The critical mass is key to maintaining our processing capacity and our ability to produce high-quality food, which is going to be the bedrock and the mainstay of Scotland’s economy going forward.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 22 March 2023; c 18.]

Quality Meat Scotland also warned:

“The big problem that we face is the loss of critical mass in the red meat sector. If we lose animals and primary producers—farmers—we will not have enough animals to make the rest of the supply chain viable.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 26 April 2023; c 2.]

That would have a negative knock-on effect and would significantly undermine the sustainability of farming and rural communities, particularly in less-favoured areas, which have considerable limitations in relation to alternative forms of farming.

Failing to consider and adequately scrutinise the unintended consequences of future agriculture policies—including the impact of conditionality—could jeopardise the primary aim of a future policy, which is to grow more of our own high-quality food, more sustainably, in Scotland.

There was real support for a sectoral approach to emissions reductions based on land use. In particular, Farming for 1.5° suggested that some sectors and areas of production must focus on baseline biodiversity and emissions targets, while others should focus on nature restoration and the sequestration of carbon. It was suggested that a future farm payment system should incentivise farmers to meet baseline targets while also rewarding those who have already made progress towards sequestration and biodiversity restoration.

It was suggested that area-based payments should be subject to conditionality to support biodiversity restoration, with farmers and crofters receiving payments based on outcomes and—crucially—on practices that will lead to desirable and positive outcomes. There was also support for whole-farm plans and for professional development and training for farmers and land managers.

NatureScot pointed out that farmers could adopt more regenerative agricultural systems in highly productive areas rather than having to set aside land for tree planting in order to promote biodiversity. Controversially, the Climate Change Committee advocates a reduction in livestock numbers and the expansion of tree planting on agricultural land, although that approach was not supported by many other witnesses.

The committee will continue to scrutinise the Government’s proposal for future agriculture policy and ensure that it delivers for Scottish agriculture and rural communities. I hope that the evidence that we have heard, and that we will hear today and in future sessions, will be taken seriously by the Government and will be reflected in new policy development.

I look forward to members’ contributions to the debate. I am sure that my committee colleagues will find it useful to hear the views of other members from all parties on the proposals for a future agriculture policy and with regard to what we need from an agriculture bill.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the need for Scotland to develop its own agriculture policy and support post-EU exit; notes the Scottish Government’s Vision for Agriculture, which was published in March 2022, and its intention to introduce an agriculture bill in the next parliamentary year, and welcomes the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s evidence taking in order to fully understand the broad range of policy areas that are fundamental to a successful future agriculture policy and to ensure that the agriculture sector is a thriving part of the economy, which helps to tackle climate change, protects biodiversity and, most importantly, puts food on plates.

I call Mairi Gougeon. You have up to eight minutes, cabinet secretary.


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

I welcome another opportunity to set out the Scottish Government’s approach to future agriculture policy for Scotland. I thank the committee for bringing the debate to the chamber and for the work that it has undertaken through its pre-legislative scrutiny. I give the assurance that I will, of course, take that evidence seriously and will give it due consideration as we move forward. I am glad to see from the committee’s motion that it supports our approach, and I will gladly support the motion.

Our vision for agriculture is a positive one. We published our vision for agriculture in March last year, setting out how we will transform support for farming and food production in Scotland as well as our aim to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

That vision has farmers, crofters and land managers at its core, as the stewards of our countryside, and it values their contribution to feeding our nation. However, we all accept that how they continue to do that and are supported to do that needs to change in future. The vision therefore recognises that land management will change to address climate change and biodiversity loss, and that there are challenges as well as opportunities in that for farmers and crofters.

Many are already leading the way, and they deserve to be acknowledged for farming to produce food sustainably in ways that actively benefit both nature and climate. Our vision makes clear that we will continue to support farmers and crofters directly so that they can capitalise on support and so that the transition is just. It also makes clear that our nation has a duty to support our producers, promoting sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices and ensuring that our world-leading climate and nature targets are realised.

This is a journey, and it is not solely about the destination. How we get to that destination is critical, and we must bring along with us everyone who wants to be involved in agriculture in the future. The Government and I remain committed to working with and listening to our industry and all who have at heart the interests of a vibrant and successful rural Scotland, to achieve the objectives in our vision. Co-design is at the centre of all that we do.

Finlay Carson

The cabinet secretary talked about the destination, but does she appreciate how important it is to farmers who are already putting actions in place to tackle climate change and biodiversity that they know what that destination is? A clear indication of the destination is as important as how we get there.

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, it is. I agree with that, which is why we have provided as much information as possible. We have tried to set out that clarity by publishing the route map and giving an indication of that future direction by the list of measures that we have published. I will come on to that.

As committee members will know, we are already well on our way to delivering a different support system. We began the national test programme last year, commencing track 1 in April. More and more farmers and crofters are now undertaking carbon audits and soil analysis. Nearly 1,000 of those have been claimed for in the first quarter of 2023.

We have consulted on proposals for a new agriculture bill, which, as the committee motion highlights, I intend to introduce during the next parliamentary year.

The agri-environment climate scheme continues to invest in projects that protect the environment and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Six hundred and eighty rural businesses shared more than £14 million in the 2022 round.

In February, I announced a new payment scheme to improve the health and welfare of sheep and cattle. In March, I announced a new pilot fund to support small producers to become more resilient as part of our commitment to growing local supply chains.

It is right that we prepare for change and adapt our approach. However, at a time of insecurity and uncertainty, during which farmers, food producers and suppliers all face huge inflationary costs, as do households, it is just as important to ensure that support reaches them timeously and efficiently.

I am proud that the Scottish National Party Government has achieved that and that we reached the target of providing 70 per cent of our expenditure by the end of December last year—three months ahead of previous performance.

Every year, we provide £420 million in support through basic payments and greening payments. We also continue to provide additional support to those farming in less favourable areas, who are, arguably, in most need the support. Of course, our approach of continuing direct support now and in the future is in stark contrast to what is being developed in England. It is worth saying again and again that, no matter what happens in Westminster, this SNP Government in Scotland will maintain direct payments and support for our nation’s food producers. What will change is that we will expect farmers and crofters to do more to deliver sustainable and regenerative farming and to maximise sustainable food production in ways that actively benefit both nature and climate.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Notwithstanding the different climate in Scotland, which I will put to one side, can the cabinet secretary set out, in practical terms, what conditions she will put on farmers in order for them to get their tier 1 payments? What is she looking for?

Mairi Gougeon

In our route map, we have set out that, in 2025, we will introduce that conditionality. Of course, the list of measures that we published alongside the route map give that sort of indication, but we will make more announcements on that in due course.

As I have just mentioned in my previous responses to the points that Mr Mundell and Mr Carson made, the journey that we are on is laid out in the route map for reform, which I published on 10 February.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that, in addressing the point that Oliver Mundell has just made, there is a need to provide a long-term line of sight about what the stability and pattern of direct payments might be, because they will be critical to underpinning investment? Does she believe that she has adequate information available to her in order to provide, at this stage, any further clarity on that line of sight?

Cabinet secretary, I can give you some of the time back.

Mairi Gougeon

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Unfortunately, we do not have the clarity and there is no certainty beyond 2025 as to what budget we will receive from the UK Government. Right now, we get that budget only on an annual basis.

Our route map sets out timescales, provides clarity and confidence on key dates and expectations, and provides information on proposals and how we will help farmers and crofters to prepare for that change. Critically, the route map delivers on one of my key pledges: that there will be no cliff edges in support for our farmers and crofters. The route map also provides transparency of the timeframes moving forward.

The work of ARIOB to take the route map forward continues, and the next meeting will be in just over a week’s time. I am delighted that Martin Kennedy, president of NFU Scotland, continues to co-chair that board with me.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Mairi Gougeon

No—I need to make some progress.

No matter what we do in terms of designing, developing and implementing a new support and policy framework, we will do so with no guarantees, as I have already mentioned, and, indeed, with no real indication of whether the UK Government will provide funding to help us deliver our reform.

Scotland has already been short-changed following Brexit, and that has impacted on what we fund currently, although we have ensured that every penny and pound that is ring fenced for rural funding is being spent there. However, unlike independent countries that are members of the EU and therefore have funding security through the CAP framework, we are reliant on annual allocations from the UK Government, and we have no indication of what will be provided beyond 2025.

However, I will continue to press Westminster for our fair share, with multi-annual funding and complete autonomy over what we spend and how we do that. I will continue to press for the funding for our farmers, crofters and land managers, who need to manage change and shift how and what they do.

In drawing to a close, I reiterate that our farmers and crofters are already making that change happen. The farmers and crofters that I meet are willing to adapt and do things differently. Many of them are already doing so, and that has also been reflected in the committee’s evidence.

However, we must also ensure that the transition that we undergo is a just one that takes with us everyone who wants to stay in or move into farming and food production. That is my goal. We have that ambition, optimism and enthusiasm, as well as the talent and skills that we need in Scotland to become that global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. I welcome the support of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and its members to do just that.

I call Rachael Hamilton to speak for up to seven minutes.


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

I am delighted to be discussing agriculture again, just one week after our debate on sustainable food supply. It is important that we have the opportunity to speak and I am glad that my convener, Finlay Carson, raised the significant issues that we discussed at the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.

When the First Minister, Humza Yousaf, set out his priorities when he took office, I expressed my frustration—shared by thousands of farmers and crofters across the country—at the lack of acknowledgment of agriculture in his opening speech and the paper that he published. He may live in Dundee and represent Glasgow Pollock, but he said that he wanted to be the First Minister for all of Scotland. He fell down at the very first hurdle in that speech. He has not represented a fifth of the population that he said that he would represent. [Interruption.] Last week was perhaps an indication that the penny has finally dropped and that the SNP ignores those communities at its peril. The warm words are cold comfort for those charged with sustaining Scotland’s food security.

Will the member taken an intervention?

Rachael Hamilton

I want to use my time today to talk about the value of farming communities to Scotland’s economy, environment and food security. [Interruption.] I will use some of the evidence that was taken during the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed agriculture bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Ms Hamilton, please resume your seat for a second. We have now had a build-up of low-level noise and grumbling from a sedentary position. If somebody wants to make an intervention, they can make one, and it will be up to the member whether they take it. I am not going to tolerate conversations across the chamber or heckling from a sedentary position in the way that we have seen over the past few minutes. Can we conduct the debate with respect?

Rachael Hamilton

Today’s motion ends with a reference to agriculture’s role in putting “food on plates”. For every debate and every committee evidence session that we have, and for every round table and every meeting on future agricultural policy that we participate in, we must not lose sight of that fundamental function of farming.

I am concerned that we will not get detail on the conditionality before we get to the first stage of passing legislation. The lack of clarity is worrying, as is evident in some of the briefings that were given to us for today, such as those from Scottish Land & Estates, the NFUS and the WWF.

Nobody would deny the important role that agriculture can play in Scotland’s drive towards net zero, nor can we question the value of food production to our economy. As the general manager of the NFUS said in evidence to our committee, enabling our farmers to produce food for our plates must come first. I hope that the SNP Government will recognise that. Placing strict conditions on more than half of the support available to farmers and crofters would send the message that their doing their jobs in producing top-quality, home-grown food for millions of people across the country and abroad is no longer good enough.

A Galloway farmer pointed out that that conditionality suits the committees of the clean-fingered climate brigade and the forestry lobby, who are paid not to farm. It suits the new breed of green-washing lairds, who will take advantage of the proposed tier 2 funding and be paid to dispense with the inconvenient risks of farming and the economic activity that goes with it. For us on the Conservative benches, that is simply not good enough. We need to reward farmers for using the right land for the right purpose. We heard that time and again during committee evidence sessions.

Does Rachael Hamilton accept that the Scottish Government has committed to helping farmers produce food rather than environmental land management schemes, which fell off a cliff and lost farmers by the droves?

Rachael Hamilton

It is quite ironic that Jim Fairlie is asking me a question when he is in coalition with the Green Party and has a Green partner in Ariane Burgess, who wants to push farmers from livestock farming to tree planting. What the SNP’s partners are doing has been described as tantamount to financial blackmail.

Will the member give way?

Will the member give way?

Rachael Hamilton

In a second.

A commitment to continuing to deliver 80 per cent of direct support would be a welcome step in order to sustain jobs and livelihoods in the countryside and supported by the industry and its representatives. The NFUS has been clear about that.

In the Government’s vision for agriculture, there is an explanation of the tiered support arrangement that is proposed and that has been consulted on. Does Rachael Hamilton support that or not?

Rachael Hamilton

I remind Mr Swinney that we are looking at the issue from the point of view of pre-legislative scrutiny. There has been huge criticism. For example, Scottish Land & Estates has said that it is complicated and complex and that we do not know the conditionality—

Will the member give way?

Rachael Hamilton

No—because I am answering John Swinney. Scottish Land & Estates does not know the details of the tiers that are currently proposed for the four-tier system.

We have Green members who want to remove support for farmers who are doing their jobs and being productive but also doing the things that they do right now, which are meeting environmental objectives. We must ensure that we are not—I cannot find the right word; I mean that we must ensure that we are supporting farmers and not looking at a way of punishing them for what they do really well. I am labouring my point, but I say to Mr Swinney that the tier system could have the unintended consequence of doing that if we do not get it right.

In March, the committee heard evidence from Jim Walker that farmers across the world are being supported to increase their efficiency and reduce their emissions. Australia is producing carbon-neutral beef. Just across the water from us, Ireland is moving in the same direction. Plans to do that in Scotland have been laid on a platter before the Scottish Government in the form of the suckler beef climate scheme, yet the proposals on that were mothballed while farmers were left in the dark over their future. Ignoring that plan and failing to come up with any other solution suggests to me, and many others in the farming community, that future farming policy is simply not a priority for the Government.

How long do I have left, Deputy Presiding Officer?

I can give you another half a minute.

Rachael Hamilton

Thank you. An important point was raised in one of the members’ briefings for the debate. It is quite awkward for the Scottish Government, but there is a shortage in its capacity on rural affairs. There is no junior minister in the cabinet secretary’s department, there is a lack of resources, and all that is clearly hampering productivity in that department. Perhaps Kate Forbes had a crystal ball that told her not to take the path to perdition.

Farmers are being left out of the loop, they are crying out for clarity on the Government’s plans for agriculture and they ended up rolling tractors on the Parliament’s lawns in protest.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, am grateful to the committee for bringing the debate on its pre-legislative scrutiny to the chamber.

The proposed agriculture bill and the new support scheme must enable the industry to achieve net zero targets, reduce emissions and produce food. Although the road map has been welcomed, it lacks detail. Evidence given to the committee has demonstrated that we have already lost out on crucial years in which we could have made headway. Farming and crofting cannot change quickly, so each delay means less innovation.

On speaking to many food and drink suppliers at an event that I was lucky enough to sponsor here at Holyrood, it struck me that the industry is already ahead of the Government on working towards 2030 net zero targets. It has used its own initiative and its own technology. What it needs—and what it is asking for—are more details on the bill and the new support scheme. It also needs more comprehensive tools to assist it in going further. Many are frustrated by the lack of Government support towards achieving our net zero ambitions. The Government must reward good practice and incentivise others to follow.

A realistic audit needs to be carried out, to ensure that farming is credited with its carbon sequestration as well as its emissions. If not, we will see green lairds buying up even more of our land, and planting trees in the wrong places, while doing nothing at all to address their current emissions. Not a penny of public money should go to people who would sell carbon credits to enable polluting behaviour elsewhere.

We must also recognise that our methods of farming, including producing grass-fed animals, are much more environmentally friendly than those of mass producers in other countries. Therefore it is senseless to discourage our farmers from rearing livestock only to simply import more environmentally damaging meat from elsewhere. Transporting food over even greater distances simply adds to the carbon that has already been created. Global warming does not recognise borders, so we should not be cutting our emissions by simply raising them elsewhere.

We need to ensure that those who produce our food receive a fair wage for doing so. Our agricultural and food sector workers are often poorly paid. The people who produce our food are often those who rely on handouts and food banks, which is simply wrong. Yet, to date, little has been done to protect and strengthen the rights of workers in the agricultural sector.

Everyone wants affordable food, but those who produce it need to be paid fairly. Subsidies help, but they should not be used to line the pockets of middle men who squeeze producers’ profits. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated our reliance on imports and how global issues have an impact on us, which highlights the need for food and energy security. For agriculture, we also need security with regard to animal feed and fertiliser. All those things are crucial to our survival.

We also need to balance farming support with sector need. In the past, Scotland has had a greater share of European Union funding for farming. We need to ensure that that is replicated in the future, and that, in turn, we distribute funding in a fashion that recognises that upland and island areas require more support.

It is simply wrong that those with larger, more profitable farms receive the greatest support. Farming should also work hand in hand with nature. We all want to see a more ambitious approach towards nature restoration. However, concerns have been raised about how that has been targeted and how, in the past, it disproportionately favoured large enterprises. There is concern that smaller-scale farmers and crofters will lose out again because they cannot identify as many features on their land, even though their production methods are already much more nature friendly.

The Government needs to put forward approaches that benefit nature restoration in all sectors and on all sizes of farm. The rural economy is dependent on farming and crofting; smallholdings are often disregarded, but they are actually the backbone of many communities. It baffles me that, time and time again, this Government does not seem to recognise that our rural areas are of high value to our economy. Without key infrastructure investment to ensure that Government policies are effective and, most importantly, that they work, it is putting the whole of Scotland at risk.

Sometimes I am frustrated that the Government cannot see that in a joined-up way—that it is helping rural areas on the one hand while damaging them on the other.

We cannot address these issues in isolation. We need Government policy that produces a rural strategy in which the agriculture bill and support systems play their part—a strategy that works for all of Scotland.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

This will be hard for some to take, but Mike Rumbles was right. It is controversial, I know, but he was. The Scottish Government’s climate change plan requires the equivalent of a 31 per cent reduction in agricultural emissions by 2032, in comparison with 2018 levels. That is no mean feat because, in the previous 29 years, emissions in the sector decreased by only 13 per cent. We need to cut emissions more than four times as quickly as we have done so far, so the clock is ticking, yet farmers, I am afraid, have been hamstrung by the lack of necessary detail about the future agricultural support that will help them to deliver those reductions—

Will the member give way on that point?

Willie Rennie

I am getting to the punchline—no.

My former colleague Mike Rumbles warned, repeatedly, about that. He warned that the uncertainty after Brexit would be damaging, and he badgered the Government at the time, repeatedly, to get on with the job. Eventually, ministers agreed and set up a working group, but even then the system was bedevilled by a lack of prompt decision making. That is why the cabinet secretary is feeling the pressure today.

Will Mr Rennie give way?

Yes, briefly.

John Swinney

I actually agreed with quite a bit of the analysis from Mike Rumbles that Mr Rennie talked about regarding the impact of Brexit. Had we not left the European Union, Scotland would have had access to seven years of certainty in agricultural programmes.

I know that Mr Rennie and I occupy different constitutional positions, but he must accept the fact that, after Brexit, there is not as much certainty from the UK Government about future funding flows as there was during our membership of the European Union.

I am afraid that I cannot give you any of that time back, Mr Rennie.

Willie Rennie

Mr Swinney makes a fair point: we need to get more certainty from the UK Government, not just about the length of time involved but about what happens if the funding in England changes, and how that would impact on Scotland.

However, there is impatience, because the Scottish Government could provide more detail about the budget that it does know about, which would help people to plan better for their future. I accept the longer-term point, but more detail is required about the immediate future.

There is impatience also because it takes time to learn new skills and develop new practice. New equipment is expensive, as we all know, and those difficulties are compounded by high fuel costs, low farm-gate prices, tight profit margins, volatile weather wiping out valuable crops overnight and lambs being slaughtered by out-of-control dogs.

However, the farmers I speak to are up for change. They want to play their part in tackling climate change and enhancing biodiversity, as well as supplying good-quality produce. We cannot meet our targets without them. We need farmers to play their part, because they have the skills that we simply do not. Young people must see a future in making a living off the land, and it would be devastating if we were to see an exodus of those we entrust to nurture our future landscape. We need to ensure that we do not take them for granted.

To be fair, it is good that the Scottish Government has committed to continue direct payments, that there will be no cliff edge, that there will be increased conditionality in relation to direct payments from 2025 and that there is a national testing programme. However, damage is being done because of the uncertainty about what precisely comes next. As the current environmental schemes come to an end, there is concern among those I speak to that there could be inaction due to the lack of new schemes. There is uncertainty around the new schemes, despite the fact that, under tier 2, there will be payments for good climate and biodiversity measures on the farm. That message has to be amplified. The cabinet secretary needs to make it clear that good climate and biodiversity work that is done today will receive a financial return under the new scheme.

It is the uncertainty about the proportions that are to be spent on each tier that is most damaging. Uncertainty can lead to indecision, which can lead to inaction.

NFU Scotland wants 80 per cent of the £680 million of agricultural support to be allocated to tier 1 and tier 2 direct payments. It would not be the status quo, as there will be increased environmental conditionality. However, the RSPB and other environmental groups want a higher proportion of that financial support to be directed to tiers 3 and 4, with their emphasis on competitive, targeted support. The RSPB has not explicitly set a percentage, but the bar chart in its briefing for this debate seems to indicate a figure of 30 per cent as opposed to the figure from the NFUS of 80 per cent. That is quite a gap.

If I were the cabinet secretary, I would want to model the two options and those in between. I would want to know what those different percentages would mean for the financial viability of farms as well as our ability to meet our obligations around climate emissions and biodiversity. We need to see the detail because we need farms to survive, but we also need to meet the climate change obligations that I set out earlier. I hope that the cabinet secretary will provide that kind of detail, so that we can fully understand the financial impact of those issues and, despite what Mr Swinney said about the uncertainty over UK financing, the Scottish Government might be able to give farmers more confidence and certainty, so that they can plan for the future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. We have no time in hand, so any interventions will need to be accommodated in members’ allocated time. That is not an invitation to members to shout out their interventions from a sedentary position if their intervention is not taken.


Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I will not be taking interventions.

This time last week, when we gathered in the chamber to discuss the need for a sustainable food supply in Scotland, I used my speaking time to call for a collaborative approach to the future of agriculture in Scotland. I intend to try that approach again, and I very much welcome Willie Rennie’s approach to the debate.

Every member recognises that Scotland is a world-class and world-renowned food-producing nation. Our global reputation is justifiably enviable, and the focus of the Scottish Government on enhancing that reputation and growing our food and drink sector is welcome and on-going.

My Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency has an excellent range of producers, and it is right that I am speaking about those businesses today. There can be no doubt that those folk, who produce world-class food, need to be at the forefront of our minds as we consider our new policy because, without farmers, there will be no just transition.

Members might have seen the creation of mulch overnight on Twitter. Normally, that is to be celebrated, but not if that mulch is a product that comes from long-established blueberry bushes that have been ripped up and shredded because the farmer can no longer afford to harvest or grow them. I believe that, in my neighbouring constituency, Scotland’s first blueberry farmer gave away his crop last year because of non-viability and cheap imports, and has ceased to grow that wonderful and nutritious health-benefiting fruit.

Importing those fruits from Peru seems counterintuitive from an environmental perspective. That is a sad indictment of the power of supermarkets with a toothless adjudicator and a lack of labour that has befallen one sector but all too sadly affects many others, too. We have to protect our food producers.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a step in the right direction, with the message getting through to Rishi Sunak’s Government. I very much welcome the fact that he has written to farmers to assure them that the UK will take their view into account in any future trade deals, and the fact that, at the food to fork summit, he made a welcome pledge on a collaborative approach with agricultural sectors. However, I again remind him that our cabinet secretary with responsibility for agriculture should have been on the guest list to discuss those matters. It would also have made sense if the UK Government had made that commitment on trade prior to opening the doors to unfettered market access for the exporting red meat powerhouses of Australia and New Zealand. That remains an undoubted threat to the future of many of our farmers and related businesses.

I am sure that we must also agree that our future agriculture policy needs all the funding worthy of agriculture’s celebrated reputation. Despite numerous representations to the UK Government from the Scottish Government and stakeholders such as the NFUS, there is still no agreed multiyear funding to allow farmers to future proof their businesses. Ninety-seven per cent of all agri funding comes from the UK Government as a legacy of EU payments. The proportionality of those payments must stay at the current levels and not be Barnettised, and there must be at least a five-year commitment. Without that guarantee, any policy that we produce in the Parliament, no matter how good or bad, will be of no value to the farming and food-producing industry, which we must do all that we can to protect and grow, because, without that support, we will lose far more food producers, such as our blueberry growers in Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

Our new Scottish agri bill is undoubtedly being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting, in relation not only to food production but to addressing environmental and biodiversity challenges. Farmers do not in any way shrink from that challenge; in fact, they will grab those challenges with both hands if we support them to do so.

I believe that Mairi Gougeon got the message spot on by identifying that there is no conflict between food production and climate and biodiversity obligations. In reality, they are intertwined. Eighty-five per cent of Scotland’s agricultural land is considered to be less favoured areas. It is best to use that land for the grazing of cows and the rearing of lambs, which are essential not only to our food security but in protecting soils, habitats and species, with a keen focus on reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers agree, and they will actively pursue regenerative farming practices because, in reality, they always have done, particularly in the upland and semi-upland areas. All farmers want to farm responsibly, and they will do so provided that what they do does not ultimately drive them out of business.

The future of rural communities is absolutely dependent on the F-word: funding. I very much hope that there is a spirit of collaboration in the air. I call on Tory and Labour members to work with the Government—it is clear that the Lib Dems are going to do that. It is not good enough to politicise or bypass the collegiate and productive process that will make the policy work. We need to get this right, and it would be extremely helpful if Tory members got the message about funding across to UK ministers. Multiyear funding has to be guaranteed.

Refusing to send invitations to the Scottish ministers for Downing Street’s farm to fork summit was a mistake. However, I know that the cabinet secretary has written a letter that highlights that there must be co-operation. The letter states that Scotland has only a fraction of the powers, levers and funding that we need and that, with the UK Government holding many of the levers that could help to sort many of the issues such as immigration funding and others that impact the agricultural sector, we need meaningful engagement with UK ministers on that. The letter says:

“It is extremely important and incumbent on us to work together constructively to support the food and drink sector ably.”

I am quite sure that everybody would agree with that.

The perfect starting point would be the relevant ministers coming to our Rural Affairs and Islands Committee at the earliest possible opportunity to show that they are willing to play their part in the process. This is not about a competition between Governments or constitutional ideas; it is about the here and now, and ensuring a successful agriculture policy in Scotland as a matter of urgency.

I remind members who have made an intervention and still wish to speak in the debate that they will need to re-press their buttons.


Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Another week, another debate on agricultural policy. I mean no disrespect to the committee, which I know is trying hard to be proactive in place of a lethargic and unenthusiastic Government, but in my view, we have been debating rather than doing for far too long.

If this Government put half as much time and energy into striking a partnership agreement with our farmers as it puts into maintaining the Bute house agreement, our rural communities would already know where they stand.

Our farmers need and deserve clarity as well as the whole-hearted support of this SNP Government. It is time to get off the fence, get behind food production and back the people with the expertise and understanding when it comes to protecting our landscapes and our environment.

Will the member take an intervention?

Will the member take an intervention?

I will give way to the cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

In that case, does the member welcome the commitment from this Scottish Government to maintain the direct support for our food producers to ensure that it continues in Scotland, unlike down south, where his colleagues have removed that vital support for their farming industry?

Oliver Mundell

I do welcome that, but not when it comes with unknown conditions, which I will come to later, and not when it comes from a Government that is happy to raid the agriculture budget in Scotland when it suits it and is willing to be partners with a party that wants to carpet our country in trees and push our farmers off their land.

It is time for this Government to get off the fence and get behind food production. Today is the perfect opportunity to back the NFUS’s call, tell us that 80 per cent of the funding in future will go to tier 1 and tier 2, and tell us what it will expect from farmers in order for them to get their payments.

We get interventions with all these smart points and attacks on the UK Government and on Brexit, but when it comes to matters that are within the Scottish Government’s control, we get silence, sloping shoulders and abdication of responsibility. It is just not right.

Rather than having our agricultural policy dictated by fringe groups that have never set foot outside the central belt, this Government should take on board the wise counsel of farmers. Unlike the Scottish Greens, our farmers understand that we cannot have sustainability while exporting our emissions and importing poorer-quality produce from the other side of the world.

When I previously mentioned avocados, I was told that that was stereotypical, but like southern hemisphere wine, there is no doubt that they travel some distance in order to sustain hard-working Scottish Government ministers.

We need to get behind home-grown and home-reared produce. We need to make it a priority to ensure that there remains room for farming in all parts of our country, particularly in our uplands, which, as I have said previously, are under real threat from both forestry and industrial-scale wind farms, which often see peat and important watercourses disturbed.

Rather than asking our upland farmers to make way for intensive commercial forestry, we should be championing their role in managing the landscapes and natural environment, as well as the important part that they play in sustaining our rural communities. Indeed, if we were serious about tackling climate change, we would be making it easier for such farmers to access grants to plant low-density native trees and hedgerows on their farms—some might say, “The right tree in the right place”.

Rather than chasing after cash cows and quick fixes, this Government should be pushing back against the demonisation of our farmers. It should be calling out the many myths that are bandied about and ask itself why, in a country such as ours, we want to turn our back on this important sector.

Red meat is not evil—it is produced to exceptionally high standards, and it is something that those who claim to be “stronger for Scotland” should be proud of. Dairy is not evil—it provides many families with nutritious and affordable food.

Farmers, far from being the climate change problem, are part of the solution. Although they might be an easy scapegoat, in my experience, farmers are often full of ideas when it comes to tackling climate change and biodiversity issues. They just need to be freed up and supported to do so. That matters in the context of this debate, because without the continuation of direct support, we simply would not have agricultural activity on a meaningful scale in many parts of our country.

We must remember that as new schemes take shape because we cannot afford to make it too difficult for farmers to meet eligibility criteria. There are real concerns among the farmers in my constituency that conditionality will be placed on future tier 1 payments. What will farmers be asked to do in return for payment? Will it be worth their claiming at all? There is a growing suspicion that the cabinet secretary and the Government may be looking to put onerous and unworkable burdens on our farmers in order to sell the concept of continued direct payments to non-governmental organisations and the professional climate lobby—and, of course, some of the cabinet secretary’s Government colleagues.

As a parliamentarian, I am anxious about being asked to pass a framework bill that does not spell out exactly what our farmers will be asked to do in order to get their hands on their money. In summing up, perhaps the cabinet secretary could give us some practical examples of what she envisages. I also put directly to the cabinet secretary the NFUS’s call that a minimum of 80 per cent of future funding should go into tier 1 and 2 payments. Is that the Scottish Government’s plan: yes or no? That seems a straightforward ask and it will be a chance for the SNP to prove its critics wrong, and to demonstrate that farmers matter more than Lorna Slater or Patrick Harvie.

You must conclude, Mr Mundell.

I know that I would rather have food on my table every day than the presence of the Scottish Greens floating around the Scottish Government Cabinet table.


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

Inevitably, the phrase “pre-legislative scrutiny” always becomes a slight contradiction in terms. As expected, and in line with the Scottish Government’s plans, there is not yet legislation for the committee to scrutinise in detail. However, as others—and not just from my party—have pointed out, it would be difficult to legislate in detail at this distance without a clearer indication from the UK Government about the financial envelope in which the Scottish Government would be expected to work.

Given the enormity of the legislation that is coming, it is right that the committee looks at the issues that are facing rural Scotland. As others have said, agriculture policy in the future will need to balance requirements in order to ensure that agriculture is a profitable activity that it is carried out in a way that meets our aims for biodiversity and carbon reduction, strengthens rural communities and ensures that there is food security and good public health. Of course, there is an environmental context to the legislation, and a consensus among most—which certainly includes the farmers that I know—about the need to tackle both biodiversity loss and the threats to habitat that have in the past been associated with more intensive forms of farming.

Oliver Mundell

I thank the member for giving way and I apologise for not taking his intervention. Given that the member has said that there is widespread consensus, why does he feel that it is necessary for the Government to dictate to farmers what they will have to do in order to access payments?

Alasdair Allan

I am sorry—I do not think that the Conservatives can, on the one hand, say that the legislative process is slow and, on the other, say that there is too much legislation. I think that that is a difficult point for the member to make, but well done to him for trying nonetheless.

Around a quarter of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from our agriculture sector. However, at the same time, it is also one of the sectors that is most affected by climate change. Flooding, drought, extreme weather and increased pest and disease risks are all conditions that crofters and farmers face and will have to adapt to in the coming years and decades. As usual, I will focus first on some of the issues of that kind and others that face my island community specifically, as well as agriculture in less favoured areas more generally. In those areas, agriculture is far from intensive, and the most immediate threat, which others have alluded to, is that agricultural activity falls below a certain level, which makes whole agricultural communities and local economies difficult to sustain.

There may well be a global re-examination of the levels of meat consumption. However, when we look at the 85 per cent of Scotland’s land mass that is classified as a less favoured area, we need to recognise that much of that land has very limited capacity, in economic terms, to be used for anything other than grazing livestock. Indeed, livestock help to create biodiversity and, particularly on the west coast, can be used as part of conservation efforts.

That is not to say that we should not encourage diversification, but we need to accept facts—not least the fact that grazed landscapes, at least in the context of non-intensive forms of agriculture, are necessary habitats for some of our rarest bird species.

Crofting and upland farming hold out models for such non-intensive activity and yet, as any hill farmer or crofter will point out, they are not where the balance of agricultural payments currently lies. If anything, the crofting landscape faces underutilisation rather than overexploitation. That is partly because half of crofters gain as little as £1,400 a year in agricultural subsidies under the present support regime. I hope that the Government will address that.

Rachael Hamilton

I really appreciate Alasdair Allan’s commitment to livestock farming, particularly for crofters, but the conditionality may prove detrimental to crofters. If they farm livestock and cannot provide evidence that they are increasing biodiversity and the rest of it, they will be out of pocket because of the conditionality.

Alasdair Allan

My point is that many forms of livestock agriculture can demonstrate that they are working with the environment but do not presently get rewarded for that.

Some of the questions that have been asked in the crofting counties are difficult to separate from the need for crofting law reform. To take but one example of that, the point is regularly put to me that the right of veto for a single shareholder in a common grazings can sometimes make it difficult for a community to invest in agri-environmental schemes or any other collective form of activity.

Am I running out of time, Presiding Officer?

You have another minute.

Alasdair Allan

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Controversial as it will inevitably be, a crofting law reform bill will be helpful and is needed to resolve some questions. I hope that it will also be part of the solution to deal with the increase in speculation on croft tenancies.

Last month, an offer was made on a croft tenancy—not a purchase of a croft but just the right to become the tenant. The tenancy, which was in Harris, was marketed for more than £200,000, which is beyond the financial reach of virtually anybody who is a crofter on Harris. We are in the perverse situation where crofts are underutilised but overcommodified, and I look forward to measures to deal with that.

To look at the wider picture and at the funding landscape, which we began by looking at, we need clarity from the UK Government about the financial envelope within which Scotland can act, and I look forward to seeing that.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests. I say at the start that I am not going to take any interventions, because of the time constraints.

When Labour was elected to power in 1945, a section of its manifesto was entitled, “Agriculture and the People’s Food”. In a rallying cry to the electorate to win the peace and to face the future, it declared:

“Our good farm lands are part of the wealth of the nation and that wealth should not be wasted.”

And so it went on to promise:

“our food supplies will have to be planned. Never again should they be left at the mercy of the city financier or speculator.”

Well, I have to report to the people who elected us that, three quarters of a century later, it looks like we are going to have to fight that same battle all over again, because what we are witnessing, at the behest of this SNP-Green Government in the name of carbon credit schemes, is farmland being sold off once again to city finance houses, spivs and speculators.

A new form of extractive capitalism has dawned. It takes the shape of corporations such as Oxygen Conservation, Highlands Rewilding, BrewDog, Aviva and Standard Life, all joining what this Government freely admits is a class of landowners and landlords set up through trusts, through limited companies and—a growing number—through offshore interests. That there is no regulation of these carbon offset schemes means that there is nothing to stop better-yielding farmland being taken out of production. It is simply left to the invisible hand of the market—and a rigged market at that.

Carbon offset tree planting is being used to tranquilise the conscience of the wealthy; it is being used to pardon the world’s richest corporations for carrying on with their greenhouse gas emitting activities, when they should be reducing or ending those activities altogether. It is a racket, and of course, because this is Scotland, they are buying up estates alongside some of the stolen lands of our antiquarian Scots noble families.

There is a great deal of secrecy, when it comes to the farm payment system, about who benefits and who pays but, just a few years ago, through a freedom of information request, it was revealed that among the chief appropriators of public money for farming and forestry in Scotland were some rather familiar names: the Duke of Buccleuch, the Viscount Cowdray, Lord Morton and the Earls of Moray, of Rosebery and of Seafield, who all do extremely well out of the Scottish farm payment system, as well as out of the Scottish class system.

So much so that the RSPB has recently calculated that the top 1 per cent of farm owners in Scotland accumulate 10 per cent of all farming support and that the top 20 per cent hoover up almost two thirds—62 per cent—of Scottish Government farming support. Put simply, too much public money is going into the private pockets of Scotland’s already wealthy corporations and estate owners, and not nearly enough is going to give a helping hand to our tenant farmers, our smallholders, our crofters and our farm workers.

So, when the cabinet secretary, in her ministerial foreword to the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture, writes that

“Scotland’s farmers, crofters and land-managers are vital to our ambition to make our nation fairer and greener”,

of course they are, but what about the 67,000 farm workers? Aren’t they part of the vision? Aren’t their futures critical if Scotland is to be not only greener but fairer, too?

Of course, the retention of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board is welcomed by the farm workers union Unite, but it is to this Government’s shame that the level of earnings is not even set at the real living wage and that, as a result, there lingers such extensive in-work poverty in our countryside.

Land, capital and labour are all critical factors of production, generating rent, surplus profits and wages, but I say to the Government today: you need to stop rewarding the first two factors at the expense of the third. I say that the rich are only so rich because the poor are so poor.

So, let me finish with some suggestions. We need to consider the front loading of farm payments: the removal of minimum acreage requirements for funding on the one hand, and the introduction of caps on payments—maximum subsidies—on the other. We must have the courage to understand that, because millions and millions of pounds of public money is being spent, we do have the leverage needed—of course we do—to bring about a just transition; that we can bring about the radical reform of land ownership that we need; that it is within the powers of this Parliament to reform, to redirect and to redistribute agricultural support, and to make it conditional that farm labourers, including migrant workers, get a real living wage, work shorter hours and are rewarded with secure and useful work, and let us reclaim the earth as a common treasury.


Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The poet Wendell Berry once wrote:

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. ... Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

The topic that we are discussing today is about so many things: our land, our communities, our food, our culture, our heritage, our security, our climate—in short, our past, present and future. In the lead-up to this important debate, I spoke to a number of farmers from across Scotland and asked them about their concerns, their hopes and the challenges that they face. I also asked them for their thoughts on future agricultural policy and, throughout my contribution today, I will share their words with the chamber.

The picture that those farmers painted was diverse. They kindly shared with me what they needed to thrive and grow; they also told me what they thought the Scottish Government should do to provide the fertile soil in which their prospects and hopes could be realised. What was clear in every conversation that I had was that with Brexit, the pandemic and, now, rising inflation and energy costs, this period has seen some of the most challenging times that the sector has ever faced.

Of the catalogue of failures that have impacted our rural economy, it was Brexit that came up the most—by far—in my conversations with farmers. Cameron Ewen, who is a farmer in my constituency, told me:

“Can we wind the clock back? It’s the biggest mistake the country’s ever made.”

Without independence, we cannot reverse Brexit. However, I note that the Scottish Government is working with our agricultural sector to help it through the damage that Brexit is doing. Our farmers and crofters are resilient if they are supported, and we are determined to support them in the coming years as we transition from the European Union’s CAP payment system to a support framework that realises the vision for Scotland to be a global leader in sustainable agriculture.

Farmer John Brims told me that he would like to see more attention paid to the future financial sustainability of our agri-food sector, in line with what the European Union set out to do. He is right—Scotland’s farmers are the backbone of our nation, producing the food and drink that ends up on our plates. The resilience of our food chains relies on the stability of our agricultural sector.

We in the chamber could perhaps use any influence that we have to pressure the UK Government to provide that future funding certainty. Among all the chaos that the Tory UK Government has brought to the agricultural sector, it can surely, at the bare minimum, provide that certainty as penance.

Food production, nature and climate concerns, and animal welfare are not conflicting priorities, and all can be done to reach a collective aim. Farmers know that more than most; as custodians of our natural heritage for centuries, they know the land intimately—that much is crystal clear in the conversations that I had this week, which is why I want to see a future agricultural policy that empowers farmers, boosts the Scottish brand and helps ensure food security.

Will the member take an intervention?

Karen Adam

Sorry—not this time.

The new animal health and welfare payment is one example of what the Scottish Government is doing to fulfil our collective vision for agriculture. Through that payment, we will reward farmers who take an active role in improving the health and welfare of the animals that they keep.

Farmer Cameron Ewen told me:

“Most farmers are doing what’s required anyway. I do regular soil analysis. I have a health scheme for livestock. I have no problem at all meeting the requirements. As long as it’s simple and easy to do, as long as it’s not a ‘consultant’s charter’, I and other farmers will have no problem at all in meeting the requirements.”

That appeal for simplicity was common to every conversation that I had this week, and it is vital that we provide farmers with that simplicity, not just to avoid unnecessarily burdening them with further costs and bureaucracy, but to foster good mental health and create an environment that entices the next generation of farmers to take up the mantle.

I am a member of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, where we have been taking a great deal of evidence from a wide range of stakeholders on the issues that agriculture faces, and a general consensus exists that mental health is a major issue. There are many depressed farmers, and anxiety and loneliness are widespread. The farmers to whom I spoke cited financial uncertainty as the major cause of poor mental health; very sadly, it has in some cases led to farmers taking their own lives. Our future agricultural policy in Scotland should take heed of that issue, and I ask the Scottish Government to please give it due consideration.

We must also do more to encourage young farmers to enter the sector. According to NFUS, the average age of farm staff is approaching 60 and that average age is rising at an alarming rate worldwide. How do we solve that? Farmer John Brims told me:

“For younger farmers to come in, they have to see it as an industry with a future. Whatever is enacted mustn’t close the door on our food production. We have a moral duty to maintain our productive base and not whittle it away or put it at risk. That base could be needed by other countries in future who will be affected by climate change.”

A desire to provide and to be a good neighbour: that perfectly sums up our farmers. I look forward to scrutiny of the proposed agriculture bill when it is comes to committee, and I hope that we can all work together to ensure that it is enabling and not burdensome so that, ultimately, we can support providers to feed our nation in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way.


Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the many expert witnesses who contributed to our Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s comprehensive process of evidence gathering on agricultural policy.

Everyone in the debate will recognise that we are having it at a time when we are deep in a climate and nature emergency. That is the context in which we must consider everything that we do in the Parliament.

We now have a very rare opportunity to set a new course, by designing a payment framework that will align agricultural activity with our national response to the climate and nature crises. We must get the incentives right in order to make what is right for the planet right for farm businesses and livelihoods, too.

I have a number of examples to give; as Karen Adam has done, I have spoken to some farmers. An organic sheep farmer in rural Perthshire told me that they are dedicating a third of their land to nature recovery. Their aim is to allow small numbers of cattle, pigs and ponies to range freely over the area, thereby creating a mosaic of dynamic habitats through the animals’ natural behaviour. However, in order to claim the basic payment, they are obliged to keep internal fences, which are barriers to wildlife. The payment criteria run directly counter to their aim to increase biodiversity—an aim that should be encouraged and not blocked by such funding incentives.

A crofter in Sutherland told me that, because of the requirement in their payment region to keep livestock, they could not get basic payment support to create the Highland’s first plant-protein croft. The criteria run counter to what we need to do to tackle the climate emergency. The UK Climate Change Committee, which came to speak to the committee, made it clear that, although there is plenty of room to continue small-scale crofting with small numbers of sheep, livestock numbers must decrease overall in upland grazing areas if Scotland is to have any hope of meeting its climate change targets. Therefore, farmers and crofters who want to reduce stock must be supported to do so.

Does Ariane Burgess have the same concern that I do about the fact that the Climate Change Committee used the word “probably” in its assessment of whether grass is sequestering enough carbon?

Ariane Burgess

I think that Jim Fairlie is introducing a subject that is quite complex and that we, as a committee, need to revisit. I will leave it at that.

Professor Tim Benton from Chatham House told our committee that the “market does not reward” farmers for being sustainable, so the payment framework must take on that role.

The organic sheep farmer in Perthshire whom I mentioned put it well. They said:

“At this time of biodiversity and climate crisis, we feel it is vital that owners of ‘less favoured area’ land should be offered a funded option to prioritise nature restoration in their land management.”

With that in mind, we should explore a new upland transition scheme that is open to all who currently receive headage payments. The scheme should provide those farmers and crofters with the same amount of income, but it should come with new requirements that bring about emissions cuts and allow areas of land to fully regenerate, whether through peatland restoration or by allowing tall vegetation and trees to thrive and provide habitat for wildlife.

I repeat: it is crucial that we get the incentives right to increase the resilience of food production in Scotland in the face of the climate and nature emergencies. The committee’s evidence session on resilience and climate change raised some critical points.

Presiding Officer, can I check how much time I have left?

You have two minutes remaining.

Ariane Burgess

Thank you.

The first point is that land management must take a landscape-scale approach. Many of the key changes will not be made at individual farm level; they will be made at catchment or landscape scale. How will that be co-ordinated? As eminent soil scientist Professor Pete Smith stated at the committee,

“The regional land use partnerships will play a vital role ... and we have to adequately finance those to allow farmers to collectivise and get together to make plans at a regional or catchment scale, so that we can get a good co-ordinated change that allows a just transition for the farmers and delivers public goods.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 19 April 2023; c 20.]

I add that that applies not just to farmers but to all landowners in the area, as well as communities.

It is clear that agriculture policy should be informed by the regional land use frameworks, which will soon be published. We also need to have policies and funding that will support different actions in different areas, given Scotland’s very diverse regions. For example, Pete Smith suggested that, on the east coast, policies should support a reduction in the amount of land that is used to produce animal feed, so that we can make the most of those areas of land, which are

“some of the most productive land for producing fruit and veg anywhere in the world”.—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 19 April 2023; c 29.]

Finally, the proposed tier structure must target funding better by strengthening conditionality and putting more of the budget into the higher tiers to reward farmers for providing public goods such as carbon sequestration, good water quality, good air quality and biodiverse habitats.

The stakes are high, and we cannot delay. The policy and payments that we design now must be fit for the future, as we help to make Scotland a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.


John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

In preparing for this debate, I looked with care at the Official Reports of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s evidence taking on its exercise in pre-legislative scrutiny. It takes a long time to read them, because the committee took extensive evidence. I compliment the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee on the exercise that it has gone through in gathering that information.

That evidence demonstrates a fundamental point that my friend and colleague Karen Adam made, which is that there is a diverse range of views on how to proceed on the matter. I think that the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee has done Parliament a service by mapping out the range of different and distinctive views that exists, so that we can resolve on a way forward. That range of evidence illustrates the scale of the challenge that faces the cabinet secretary, and it demonstrates that the careful work that the Scottish Government has undertaken for some time has been necessary in order for it to try to build a greater degree of consensus than would ordinarily be the case in such deliberations. Some strikingly different views exist on how to proceed, which Parliament and the Government will have to consider.

The Rural Affairs and Islands Committee has contributed meaningfully to the process, and the Government has responded to that by taking the necessary time and care to ensure that we have consensus. That has left us in a position in which there is broad consensus that we want to take an approach that ensures that we have confidence in our food supply and know that we have a sustainable agriculture sector, that adequate measures are being taken to tackle climate change and that the farming industry is involved and engaged—as much of it already is—in addressing biodiversity loss in our rural environment. Those are three absolutely fundamental priorities.

The exercise that the Government has gone through has got us to a strong position. I appreciate that people would like us to be further on, but I will come on to say why I think that that is a bit challenging. It has got us to a position in which we have the substance of a really strong agriculture bill for the Parliament to consider.

That has been added to by two fundamental commitments that the cabinet secretary has given to Parliament today. First, she has committed to there being a just transition. There has to be a transition—everybody accepts that. Some people would like the transition to be more acute than others would like, but everyone accepts that there has to be a transition. The fact that the cabinet secretary has committed to a just transition is a welcome assurance to people who might be concerned.

I will take a brief intervention from Mr Whittle.

Does John Swinney agree that while we have been discussing the issue, our food producers and farmers have just been getting on with it, and that we should listen to them more?

John Swinney

What has the committee been doing? What has the Government been doing? They have been listening to those people for ages. Why do we not celebrate the fact that folk are getting on with it, rather than using it as a way of attacking the Government, which is the most pedestrian of parliamentary tactics?

Will John Swinney give way?

John Swinney

No, I will not.

The second key commitment that has been given by the cabinet secretary is that there will be no cliff edges, which is a crucial assurance that the process will be managed. This Government is listening with care to rural Scotland and wants to understand how the dichotomies and difficulties can be resolved. The Government should not be attacked for that and nor should the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.

Finlay Carson

I appreciate John Swinney’s words regarding the work that the committee has done so far. Does he agree with me that there is some concern that, in a few months’ time, we might have to agree to a bill without knowing what the conditionality on most of the payments will be? That is a real concern for many of our farmers.

John Swinney

I understand that there is uncertainty about that—of course there is—but there is also a lot of other uncertainty. I have been rehearsing this point with my friend Mr Rennie during the course of the debate. Before Brexit, we had seven years of certainty about agricultural support and investment. At the moment, we have annual commitments only up to 2025. Mr Carson cannot tell me what stance the UK Government will take on the application of the UK Internal Market Act 2020. [Interruption.] I say to Mr Carson that I am addressing his points.

Mr Carson cannot tell me what the UK Government will do with the UK Internal Market Act 2020 in the design of the agricultural support regime, nor can he tell me what the UK Government will do with the Subsidy Control Act 2022. The cabinet secretary will have to wrestle with those uncertainties. I point out that both those pieces of legislation were resisted by this Parliament because we recognised them as being incursions into our powers to decide on an agricultural system that will suit Scotland.

I think that Mr Rennie summed that up. He should perhaps be drafted in to write the occasional sentence or two, because he came up with a really good point today that sums it all up for me. He said that farms need to survive, but we need to take the climate action and biodiversity action that are necessary. That is the $64 million question that we are wrestling with. The evidence that has been taken by the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and the careful listening by the Scottish Government and its cabinet secretary will serve us well as we take the difficult steps to reconcile what might in some cases seem to be irreconcilable, in order that we achieve sustainable agriculture, which is what I want for my constituents in Perthshire North.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am part of a family farming partnership and there should be no doubt that I gain subsidies in relation to that.

In my 40 years in farming, I have learned that farmers are incredibly resilient and will respond to Government directions, as they have done. Today’s debate was a chance for the Government finally to set out more detailed plans for Scottish farming. Has it done so? Why will it not do so? Does the Government understand the problem? Will it get off the fence?

Today has shed no light on that. I think that the Government is stuck on the fence and does not understand how to get off it. For example, we still do not know how much funding will be made available or whether the Scottish Government will ring fence it. We do not know whether all farms will be able to apply for all the new agricultural schemes or what conditions those schemes will set. Our farmers will be rightly disappointed and frustrated about this Government’s continued lack of clarity.

The Government seems to me to be a bit like the cow that I have chased on many occasions up the race and into the crush. It knows that it has to get there, but it will fight me every step of the way. It will kick, bellyache, move backwards and forwards and make one hell of a mess, but it gets to the crush in the end.

Farmers have been waiting for this policy to be declared since 2016. Let us not forget that it was this Government—with the aid of the Liberal Democrats, Mr Rennie—that allowed the policy to stretch out to 2024. If we had had our way, the mini agriculture bill in 2020, which Mike Rumbles supported, would have allowed the policy to be put forward in 2022. However, that was stopped by Fergus Ewing, who wanted, at that stage, to have more “stability and simplicity”—I believe that most farmers believed that to mean more dithering and delay. That bill kicked the can of farming subsidies down the road, and it has been kicked further ever since.

Does Edward Mountain not understand that the plea for stability, which the Government responded to positively, was made by the industry?

John Swinney is right. Stability was wanted by the industry—

Yes, I am right.

Edward Mountain

What the industry did not want was to forever go forward—

John Swinney can wave his hand as much as he likes. I can see him doing it.

The industry wanted a clear direction, which we do not have.

Unlike the Government, farmers do not work from day to day. They invest for the future. They look five to 10 years in front, which is not what the Government has done. Let us be honest. Since 2011, the beef herd has dropped from 471,300 animals through a 12 per cent decrease to 430,400 animals. That decrease means that the Scottish beef industry is virtually unsustainable. We have seen the knock-on effect in the loss of abattoirs.

What are we looking forward to? As has been said in the debate, there are multiple demands on land—for the production of food, for trees, for agri-environment schemes, for rewilding and for access. We cannot do it all. We need to concentrate on the most important thing: food security.

My message is clear. Good agricultural land should not be taken out of food production. Trees are all very well in the right place, but we have not yet found a way of eating them. Nor, just by growing trees on the best agricultural land, should we export our carbon footprint.

We need a system that promotes food production yet delivers environmental benefits. We do not need a bureaucratic system that gets more civil servants, prevents food production and penalises farmers for small errors. We certainly do not want an information technology system designed by Richard Lochhead that costs £180 million and does not work. Neither do we need a system that precludes farmers from all environmental schemes. We do not need a system that has not been financially modelled to make sure that we understand where the money is going and whether it is going to achieve what we want it to achieve. We need a system that ensures that Scottish food—good, wholesome Scottish food—gets on to Scottish plates.

Farmers need more than the warm words that they have heard from the Government. They need a lot of detail and substance—and they need that in the bill, not in follow-up legislation.

My message to the cabinet secretary is therefore very clear: please do not be like Fergus Ewing, continuing to dither and delay. You must now be uncomfortable about sitting on the fence. Get over it and come up with a policy. Farmers are waiting. The industry is holding its breath. While you ponder and dither, the problem is that our industry suffers

We move to the winding-up speeches.


Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

It is clear that we need to make changes to support our agricultural sector. Our current direct payments system is deeply unequal. The top 20 per cent of claimants receive 62 per cent of the direct payments budget, while the bottom 40 per cent receive just 5 per cent.

We have heard today how the current direct payments system rewards intensive farming, often incentivising the least environmentally friendly land management choices. In effect, the current system penalises those who are working hardest to serve the public good. Our new payments system must incentivise high nature value farming and end area-based payments that reward ownership at the expense of the public good.

The system must also provide as much certainty as possible for our food producers, because farming requires plans that are made years ahead, and our nature targets require the same forward thinking, neither of which is possible without clearer, longer-term strategies to meet those goals.

In 2019, more than three quarters of the farming payment budget was paid exclusively on the amount of farmable land owned. That is a regressive system, which rewards land hoarding and often acts as a payment for the farmers who need it least. However, instead of ensuring that those large landholdings are being held and managed for the public good, with responsible whole-farm plans that demonstrate sustainable practices, we have payments that reward practices that are detrimental in the long term.

We need our agricultural strategies to encompass the principles of land justice, in order to diversify our land ownership and tenancy and allow more people to live and work on our land, because the barrier for entry into agriculture is currently too high for too many, and land monopolies lead only to agricultural production monopolies, which harm us all.

Just last week, we spoke in this chamber about food insecurity, not just as a nation but as individuals, because more people than ever are forced to rely on food banks. However, we cannot begin to tackle long-term food insecurity without a system that recognises the natural symbiosis between sustainable farming and nature management.

Extreme weather costs farmers—and, by extension, the public—hundreds of millions each year, and farmers are often the first to be affected by the loss of soil quality and water scarcity, which go on to affect us all.

The empty shelves in supermarkets show us not just the food that we cannot buy but the food that our farmers cannot supply under our current system. It should not be the responsibility of farmers to slash prices in order to inflate supermarket profit margins, and nor should the public be expected to pay ever-increasing food prices, while supermarket share prices soar. Both farmers and consumers need a fairer approach to pricing and distribution.

For any Government that is hoping to get by on the status quo, I am afraid that the message is clear: we need Government intervention, we need a national industrial strategy and—yes—we need price controls.

In conclusion, we have heard today about the deep flaws in our current payment system, the lack of a long-term strategy to meet biodiversity and emission goals, and the regressive rewards for concentrated patterns of land ownership. However, despite those challenges, we know that many farmers and crofters are going above and beyond to meet environmental targets and provide our food, and that the public are more interested than ever in eating local to support our producers and protect our planet. Let us use the power of this Parliament to support local and nutritious food production, fair pay for workers, fair prices for consumers and a universal right to food for us all.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives and I add my thanks to the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and its clerks for the great work that they have done on the topic and in bringing the debate to the chamber. In general, I think that it has been a really good debate. Perhaps because it is a debate from a cross-party committee, there has been a bit more consensual discussion than usual.

I was struck by the last line in the committee’s motion, which says that the Scottish Government wants

“to ensure that the agriculture sector is a thriving part of the economy, which helps to tackle climate change, protects biodiversity and, most importantly, puts food on plates.”

That one sentence asks our food producers to take on so much responsibility for such huge issues. The Government wants them to feed us and tackle the climate and biodiversity crises—arguably two of the most important issues that face us today. In asking them to directly deal with those issues simultaneously, the Scottish Government is tying food producers’ hands.

There is a push to cut beef and sheep numbers, citing livestock greenhouse gas production. However, the noisy minority fails to identify that, although the global figure is high—predominantly from the factory-farming techniques in the US, the far east and South America—our cattle and sheep are predominantly grass fed. Surely that is the ultimate circular economy? We have a high level of animal husbandry and we should, in fact, be holding our farmers up to the world as exemplars of how to produce the highest-quality food in a sustainable and ethical manner. Instead, they are being vilified by those who understand little and who want to push their beliefs on to the rest of society. It seems that, in all that virtue signalling, they have forgotten that we need to feed our nation. We need to ensure food security, and that is a circle that the nay-sayers simply cannot square. As has been highlighted, the unintended consequences of an attack on our red meat sector would be to jeopardise sustainability across the food chain.

Many policies will play into the new agriculture policy. We have discussed food security very recently, as well as the climate and biodiversity crisis. We have also recognised the important role that the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 could play, but the approach to a good food nation has dragged on for years and it is currently a shell of what it should be. We have also discussed public food procurement; again, that is a measure that I have raised many times and that could have been dealt with years ago. I know that the cabinet secretary is also supportive of that direction of travel, which I have to say is more frustrating to me, considering that very little has happened over the intervening years. Then there is the land reform bill, which could significantly cut across food production; given the 3,000 hectare limit that is suggested, it would impact more than 800 farms. We need to have a joined-up approach if we are going to develop legislation that supports our food producers to deliver on the Scottish Government’s demands of them.

A little bit of thinking outside the box is perhaps required, so I will put a little idea on the table for consideration. Rachael Hamilton spoke in her opening speech of a threat to our farmland, especially with regard to tier 2 proposals and greenwashing. In Scotland, we do not have a shortage of land; however, there is increasing pressure on fertile farming land from the likes of onshore wind farms and—as Edward Mountain mentioned—land being bought up by companies to plant trees to offset carbon and the likes. There seems to be a presumption that permission for those schemes will be granted.

I am curious to know what threat there is to livestock production from a wind farm.

Brian Whittle

I am suggesting that, too often, there is a presumption towards granting permission for that, no matter the value of the land to agriculture. The wind farms throw in so many applications in the planning phase and they are starting to take over agricultural land. [Interruption.] If I could just continue. What if we designated our most productive land as land where permission is likely to be denied for those uses, and incentivised and supported our food producers to keep producing? What if we designated land for the development of onshore wind where permission is likely? Currently, it takes around 13 years from making an application for a wind farm to building one, which does not help our biodiversity and climate crisis.

We know where we want to develop the Caledonian rainforest. We know where our national parks will be. We discuss spatial planning for our seas. Should we consider an element of spatial planning on our land? After all, we do that in urban areas. I know that I am flying a kite here, but it is perhaps time to be a bit more radical when we consider land use and land reform in the context of food security and the environment. Producing sustainable food and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.

As many speakers in the debate said—and as Oliver Mundell highlighted so eloquently in his contribution—those who work the land are the experts in both those areas. They simply need a legislative framework that enables them to innovate, and support from the Scottish Government to encourage delivery. Farmers plant trees and they get no reward. Farmers invest in lowering their greenhouse gases and get vilified nonetheless. Farmers are moving to living hedgerows and biodiversity in their planting, and away from damaging chemicals, yet are hamstrung by the Scottish Government’s ideology on gene editing, which would support their efforts.

In conclusion, we need an agriculture bill that supports our food producers. It is entirely possible to produce legislation that realises all our goals. It is time to ditch ideology and start developing a framework of interconnected policies that align and do not work against each other—would that not be a breakthrough?


Mairi Gougeon

As ever, I am grateful to members for their contributions to the debate, because the continued success of our agriculture sector clearly matters to us all. That has been reflected across the chamber in the debate that we have had this afternoon.

We all recognise the essential role that the sector has in driving the rural economy, contributing to Scotland’s food security and enabling the realisation of our world-leading climate and nature restoration outcomes. As I set out in my introductory remarks, this Government has a positive vision for the future, which has our food producers at its core, recognises the duty that is owed to them by our nation and supports them to produce high-quality food while delivering for the climate and nature restoration.

The agriculture reform route map that I published sets out key steps towards a coherent future framework. Alongside that route map, as I mentioned, I published an agriculture reform list of measures, and we will continue to test options through our national test programme.

Rachael Hamilton

The Scottish Government is taking the mickey. Andrew Moir, who is on the arable climate change group, told our committee that the national test programme funding of £250 was just worthless. He has been investing in technology and reducing his fertiliser output for years at a cost of thousands of pounds. What does the cabinet secretary have to say to him?

Mairi Gougeon

I know Andrew Moir well. He is one of my constituents and I have been out to visit him on his farm. I welcome all the work that he is undertaking and driving forward, which is why he is a valuable member of our ARIOB.

The national test programme is vitally important, because it is about helping our businesses to get the baseline information. We already have carbon audits and soil testing. We have set out measures for animal health and welfare, and we are looking to expand that programme as we move forward.

All of that, and the list of measures that we have, is built on the actions that were identified by the farmer-led group processes, as well as academic research. All of that is underpinned by the principle that farmers and crofters should do what is right for their businesses.

I will introduce a new Scottish agriculture bill this year, which will provide the powers and the four-tier framework to deliver on our vision for agriculture. It will be a robust, adaptive and coherent framework that has been developed with our partners to deliver on our vision. I said earlier that this is a journey, and we are absolutely committed to making this journey with the industry and to listening, learning, adapting and improving as necessary in order to deliver on our vision.

I will touch on a number of important matters that were raised in the debate. One such matter, which came through quite strongly and was mentioned by a number of members, is the importance of our livestock industry. We know what the Climate Change Committee spelled out in relation what it thinks needs to happen to livestock numbers for us to meet our net zero targets. I want to be absolutely clear that the Scottish Government is not considering a cull of livestock in order to cut emissions. It is not our policy to actively reduce livestock numbers. We know that we produce livestock well in Scotland, and there will continue to be a role for that in the future.

That brings me to the important points that Rhoda Grant made in her opening speech in relation to how well we produce livestock in Scotland and the fact that we do not want emissions to be offshored. I absolutely agree that that does not make any sense to us. As I say, we produce livestock well in Scotland and we will continue to do that.

I also want to emphasise that Scottish produce, which includes meat and dairy, plays a hugely important part in our lives, culturally and in terms of nutrition. I fully support our meat and dairy sectors, and I am determined to ensure that our agriculture sector is rightly portrayed in a positive light.

That brings me to another important point about our livestock industry and how important our livestock is in general. Alasdair Allan raised points on the importance of livestock for biodiversity, and he is absolutely right. On a visit to Islay, I saw where livestock were being actively managed for chough habitat. I have also been out on visits to see them in forestry and among trees, and I have heard about their importance for hazel trees, in particular. It is important, therefore, that we come to the realisation, and that we all acknowledge, that it is not a case of either/or: we need livestock to help us with the challenges that we face in relation to nature.

Will the member give way?

Mairi Gougeon

Not at the moment, because I need to make some progress.

Our vision for agriculture and our agriculture reform programme route map make clear our commitment to enabling the producers of high-quality food to deliver on our shared outcomes for biodiversity recovery and climate adaptation and mitigation. That is why we will continue to actively support those sectors in the future.

That brings me on to some other points. It is frustrating to see that work continually undermined. We had another good debate in relation to agriculture and our food security last week, in which we touched on vitally important points about trade. I do not want to see our sectors undermined, but, unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened in the trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that have been signed up to so far. Those deals completely undermine our own production in this country and allow unlimited imports, which does not help to support our sectors.

Another point that was raised throughout the debate relates to funding and budgets. There is no clarity, and there is no getting around the fact that our work and our planning is compromised by financial uncertainty. We remain in a position whereby Brexit means that we no longer have long-term certainty about funding. We used to be a part of a seven-year funding period, but we no longer have certainty for that period of time.

That is, I am afraid, where I take real issue with Edward Mountain’s claims about day-to-day operation. HM Treasury has provided yearly allocations for the current UK parliamentary session, and we do not have any funding commitment from 2025. We do not have that certainty—the only certainty that we have is a £93 million shortfall in our budget to 2025, because the UK Government has failed to honour its funding commitments, with no clarity beyond that.

John Swinney made a good contribution and made some important points highlighting the constraints of the Subsidy Control Act 2022, which can hamper our policy choices in the future. Unusually, the act included agriculture in its scope, leaving us with less flexibility—

You must conclude, cabinet secretary.

—than we had as a member of the EU.

In closing, change is a constant, and our farmers and crofters have always demonstrated creativity and resilience in that regard—

Thank you, cabinet secretary—I will have to stop you at this point.

Okay. I look forward to working with members of the committee as we move forward and introduce our agriculture bill.

I call Beatrice Wishart to wind up the debate on behalf of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

As deputy convener of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to close the debate on the committee’s important scrutiny of future agriculture policy in Scotland.

First, I echo the convener in thanking all those individuals and organisations who have offered evidence to the committee over the past few months. I also thank the members who are in the chamber, and the cabinet secretary, for their contributions to the debate. Members’ views and the views of their constituents will help to inform the committee’s continued scrutiny of future agriculture policy and of the upcoming agriculture bill.

There was a substantial level of agreement among the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee that change is needed in our agriculture policy. Using more conditionality in the payment scheme could encourage more sustainable farming practices in reducing emissions and increasing biodiversity, while better ensuring that those who are working on less favoured land get the investment that they need.

As a representative of an island constituency, I am hopeful of the potential for an agriculture policy to support farmers and crofters who are working on some of the least favoured areas, but I am concerned about the risks that are posed to their livelihood if they are not supported. Despite the publication of the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture, the outline proposals in its consultation and the high-level route map for the transition to a new policy, there remains a concerning lack of detail on what a future agricultural policy will entail and what the agriculture bill will provide for.

That is the view of the Scottish Crofting Federation, which told the committee that

“there are still some omissions that are particularly relevant to crofting. That includes detail on how common grazings will fit in and detail around payment structures, particularly on support to less favoured areas and on successors to the less favoured area support scheme.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 22 February 2023; c 2.]

That concern about a lack of detail was also voiced by many other witnesses right across the spectrum of views heard by the committee. Therefore, I ask the Scottish Government to ensure that it undertakes more engagement with food producers to understand and address their concerns in the agriculture bill. It would be appreciated if further information is published and shared with the committee as soon as possible.

It is important that agriculture policy reflects and supports the role of crofters as land managers of less favourable land. Claire Simonetta, of the farmer-led group for hill and upland farming, stated that

“hill and upland farming and crofting deliver multiple public benefits from disadvantaged land. Although those businesses are disadvantaged in an agricultural sense, and therefore rely more on income support, they are advantaged in terms of what they can deliver for public outcomes.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 1 March 2023; c 26.]

Although livestock is the greatest source of emissions from agriculture, it must be recognised that there are few alternatives to livestock grazing available for crofters and other managers of disadvantaged land to undertake agriculture in their areas. NFU Scotland told the committee that a future policy must

“focus on payments that will incentivise and encourage farmers and crofters to drive productivity, drive efficiency and deliver for biodiversity and the climate”.—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, 22 March 2023; c 5.]

I therefore share the view of other members of the committee that a future agriculture policy needs to ensure that the whole food production supply chain is supported in Scotland.

Ensuring that we support viable crofting would also ensure that biodiversity is supported. We heard from the Scottish Crofting Federation that many crofting areas are closely related to high-nature-value farming areas. That includes common livestock grazing, which can be beneficial to both nature restoration and carbon sequestration in the soil. For that reason, Scottish Environment LINK and Farming for 1.5° wished to encourage the Scottish Government to consider the concept of high-nature-value farming systems and reward crofters and farmers who are already promoting biodiversity on their holdings through a new payment system.

Before I close, I want to highlight several points that were made by other members who spoke in the debate. Rhoda Grant suggested that industry was way ahead of the Government in its thinking and highlighted that the rural economy is dependent on crofting and farming. Willie Rennie, Karen Adam and others stressed the need for certainty. Jim Fairlie emphasised the F-word—funding, and I agree that multiyear funding needs to be guaranteed. Other members talked about food security and health and giving whole-hearted support to our farmers and crofters, many of whom are already doing what has been asked of them in the interests of a just transition.

A strong agriculture sector is vital for the economy of our islands and for Scotland as a whole. The committee looks forward to continuing its engagement with crofters, farmers and other stakeholders in its pre-legislative scrutiny, and to consideration of the agriculture bill when it is introduced.

I once again thank members for their contributions to the committee’s debate.

That concludes the debate on future agriculture policy in Scotland.