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Future of Scottish Agriculture post-Brexit

Scottish Agriculture post-Brexit

Aoife Behan in Westminster

Our director, Aoife Behan, was a witness at the Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster on Tuesday, February 26, speaking about the future of Scottish agriculture post-Brexit. She said: 

  • Agricultural and environmental policy should be integrated
  • It's not a binary choice between environmental outcomes and food production
  • We should reward Scottish farmers who are farming challenging land and delivering environmental outcomes that benefit us all, such as increasing biodiversity and supporting ecosystems
  • The biggest threat to our food security is biodiversity loss
  • Rewarding public goods will make farm businesses more resilient
  • Environmental principles should be duties and should underpin legislation across the board 
  • Farmer-led innovation is key 

Here is a summary of the Q&A:

Committee panel: Pete Wishart (Chair); Deidre Brock; Hugh Gaffney; Kirstene Hair; Christine Jardine; John Lamont; Tommy Sheppard; Ross Thomson.

Witnesses: Bruce Wilson, Public Affairs Manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Sheila George, Food and Environment Policy Manager, WWF Scotland, Professor Colin Reid, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Dundee, and Aoife Behan, Director, Soil Association Scotland.

Chair: Please introduce yourself..

AB: I am director of Soil Association Scotland. We are a food and farming charity, and our vision is good food for all, produced with care for the natural world. We work across the supply chain in Scotland, so we work with about 1,000 farmers every year. They are farmers not only farming organically, but farmers and land managers who want to make more sustainable changes to their practice. On the demand side, we work with Scottish local authorities—over one-third of Scottish local authorities—to get fresh, healthy and sustainable food on to the school plate.

Agricultural and environmental policy should should be joined together 

Q: Does Scotland face distinct challenges in agri-environmental policy compared to the rest of the UK? Is there anything we should be paying particular attention to?

[Sheila George highlighted that 85% of Scottish land is classed as Less Favoured Area and 51% is rough grazing, often perceived as only good for beef and sheep. Yet 40% is classed as being of high nature value, compared to just nine per cent in England.]

Aoife Behan: In support of Sheila’s point about the environmental opportunities in Scotland, 60% of the UK’s peatland is in Scotland. Although it only makes up 20% of the Scottish landscape, it stores 25 times as much carbon as all the vegetation in the UK. That issue demonstrates that it is vitally important we start rethinking how we define productivity in the context of agriculture and land management, and that we look to integrate agriculture policy with environmental policy. Environmental policy can go hand in hand with production, if we start applying a public money for a public goods model.

We should reward Scottish farmers who are farming challenging land and delivering environmental outcomes ...It's not a binary choice between environmental outcomes and food production

Q: Ms Behan, when I speak to farmers in my constituency—I have hill farmers in Perthshire, as well as large arable areas in Strathmore— they tell me that they do this anyway. That part of what their business is all about public goods and delivering environmental improvements on the land they operate.

AB: The existing system has certainly offered stability to farm businesses. The average subsidy is about 40K per annum and without it, many would not be profitable. CAP has offered lots of support for rural communities, and through pillar two increasingly more conservation efforts have been taking place. But what CAP has done is stifle innovation, and it has left those conservation efforts on the boundaries of fields rather than integrating them into the fields. There is an opportunity now, rather than maintaining the supply chain fragility—which CAP pillar one payments, in particular, have done—to look at the pillar two-type payments in a different way and to reward the very many Scottish farmers who are farming quite challenging land but who are delivering environmental outcomes that benefit us all.

Through some of the schemes that we operate on Soil Association programmes, we know that this can be done. It is not a binary choice between environmental outcomes and food production. There is a way of increasing farm productivity to an optimum level that benefits both the environment and food production.

Rewarding public goods will make farm businesses more resilient

John Lamont: Scotland currently spends more of its CAP allocation on direct farming support, compared to south of the border. We transfer less money from pillar one to pillar two. We also spend more pillar two money on less favoured support schemes. This suggests to me that, of the total funding pot available under CAP, Scotland spends less on environmental schemes than elsewhere in the UK. Do you accept that conclusion, and are you suggesting that, once we move beyond Brexit, we should be spending less money on direct support for farming and more on the environmental schemes?

AB: Yes. We would expect rewards for increasing biodiversity on farms and for supporting valuable ecosystems, like clean water and pollinators, for example, or restoring peatland, in addition to food production: rewarding the goods that the market does not pay for and looking at more resilient farming businesses.

The biggest threat to our food security is biodiversity loss

John Lamont: I wonder where food production fits into everyone’s vision for what happens in Scotland’s farming areas?

AB: I would draw the Committee’s attention to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report that was published last week, which said the biggest threat to our food security is biodiversity loss. Land changes, pollution and over-exploitation of resource and climate change are what are going to threaten our food security over the coming years. What we need to do is shift the debate from productionist to, how do we have a more regenerative approach to agriculture, allow farm businesses to be more robust and also look after our environment? It is very much about being integrated.

IIDRI is an independent French policy research think tank that recently published a report called “Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe”, and it advocated a move to more environmentally sustainable methods of farming. It did quite a lot of modelling, and what it found was that agro-ecological methods can feed the European population and keep us healthy. They can maintain export capacity while also reducing Europe’s global footprint, and that can result in a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. There is an emerging school of thinking that agro-ecological approaches can be better for farmers and better for the environment, and secure our food production in the longer term.

Environmental principles should be duties and should underpin legislation across the board

Ross Thomson: Two points. Should different agriculture and environmental issues be subject to different types of common framework? Would there be any disadvantages to having different types of common frameworks operating in the agri-environmental policy area?

AB: Agricultural policy and environmental policy need to be integrated. If those environmental governance principles are proportionately applied, as the Environment Bill currently states, this could mean that if an environment principle was going to cost the Treasury, then it could be left aside. Likewise, it is asking that people ‘have regard to’ those environmental principles, rather than any duty to follow them. The key principles, particularly the preventative and the precautionary principles—the principles that keep us and our environment safe—need to be duties. And they need to be applied across all legislation, not just confined to environmental legislation, or they will not be effective.  That is the only way that we can protect our own safety and our environment.

Scotland should have its own environmental governance

Tommy Sheppard: Could you explain what positive benefits there might be for the ability of Scotland to have its own environmental governance?

AB:  I would say the ability to diverge within a broader common framework is absolutely key for all four nations. All four nations have different sets of challenges and, as we have already discussed, the agricultural sector, the environment, our geography and our climate are different in Scotland, so we need a policymaking capacity to allow for that to happen. The cornerstone of the Scottish brand is provenance and sustainability, and we need to be able to preserve that, not only for our internal markets but for our external markets too. Divergence within a commonly agreed framework should be possible in order to deliver the best outcomes for Scotland.

Farmer-led innovation is key 

Chair: All the technology and innovation discussion is about increasing productivity; there is very little debate about increasing environmental gains. Do we need to recalibrate and reset some of this?

AB: Farmer-led innovation is incredibly important. We deliver the Rural Innovation Support Service, which is funded through the SRDP technical pot. It is a collaboration between Soil Association Scotland, SAC consultancy, SAOS, and Scotland Food and Drink, and it is a unique way of putting farmers at the forefront of innovation. What we have learned from that is that top-down advisory is not the best way to innovate and embed change in the longer term. The most innovative solutions tend to be the ones that can be integrated into farm practice quite quickly and deliver productivity gains—when I am talking about productivity, I am talking about that optimal level of productivity rather than the maximum level. The gains are around environmental outcomes as well as food production.