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Post-CAP agricultural policy in Scotland

Post-CAP agricultural policy in Scotland

In the first of a monthly series of blog posts, Soil Association Head of Policy for Scotland David McKay looks at the emerging post-CAP agricultural policy north of the border:

Ever since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU following the 2016 Brexit vote, the Scottish Government has been wrestling with what a post-Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) framework will look like.

There have been consultations and farmer-led working groups, but progress has appeared slow, certainly in comparison to England, where DEFRA charged ahead with the Environmental Land Management Scheme and a mantra of ‘public money for public goods’.

Here in Scotland, we were given a clear signal of what the future policy will look like in March this year, when the Scottish Government’s Vision for Agriculture was published.

This high-level document sets out a bold ambition for Scotland to become a “global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture”. It promises a support framework that delivers climate mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration and high-quality food production.

There is not much to disagree with in the headline statements. In fact, Soil Association Scotland broadly agrees with the ‘vision’ as a whole, particularly the emphasis on farming with nature, encouraging more organic farming, reducing agrochemical usage, improving animal welfare and integrating trees on farms.

But questions remain. How exactly does the government define ‘sustainable’ and ‘regenerative’ farming? And how will the current payment system be restructured to deliver on the government’s stated ambition?

A response to the climate and nature crises

It is important first to consider the context. The Scottish ‘vision’ for farming and food production is rooted in the government’s response to the twin climate and nature emergencies.

As with every other sector of the economy, agriculture must play its part in reducing emissions to meet the ambitious target to reach net zero by 2045 – five years before the rest of the UK.

The vision should be read in that context as a set of principles and values by which farming and crofting can be transformed to meet the climate challenge.

The document was launched in tandem with a National Test Programme (NTP), which will be split into two phases and will run until 2024.

The first stage of that process – which has already launched – aims to benchmark the current state of environmental performance on-farm, with soil testing, carbon audits and biodiversity audits. Soil Association Scotland is encouraging all farmers and crofters to register and get involved with this, even if soil testing is something you already do on a regular basis.

The government has said that the purpose of the second stage of the NTP is to “design, test, improve and standardise the tools, support and process necessary to reward farmers, crofters and land managers for the climate and biodiversity outcomes they deliver”.

That, in many ways, will be the tricky part.

The Agricultural Reform Implementation and Oversight Board (ARIOB), set up by the Scottish Government to help drive through changes to agriculture, is already looking at the detail of how that will work in practice.

Manifesto commitments and future legislation

The SNP manifesto for the 2021 Holyrood election promised that, by 2025, half of all direct payments to farmers, crofters and land managers would be conditional, with targeted outcomes for biodiversity gain and a drive towards low carbon approaches.

That language was expanded upon slightly in the shared policy programme published as part of the co-operation agreement with the Scottish Greens, with ‘enhanced conditionality against public benefits’. This is not quite the same ‘public money for public goods’ line from DEFRA south of the border, but it is a broadly similar direction of travel.

All of this will be subject to a consultation in late summer this year in advance of a Scottish Agriculture Bill that will be introduced to parliament in 2023.

That piece of legislation will provide a new support framework to replace the CAP, which was effectively continued in Scotland post-Brexit through the EU Withdrawal Act 2018. 

So what does it all mean?

The detail of policy and legislation developed over the next two to three years will shape the future of Scottish agriculture for a generation.

Whilst the government’s ‘vision’ for agriculture is a positive one, the terms ‘sustainable and regenerative’ are ambiguous – perhaps deliberately so. There is no agreed definition of ‘regenerative’ agriculture – at least not in the way that organic, for example, is defined and underpinned by standards, regulation and legislation. The word ‘regenerative’, as well as the word ‘sustainable’, can mean different things to different people – and that may be helpful for a government that is trying to keep as many people as possible onside while charting a new course for Scottish farming and crofting.

The commitment to maintaining 50% of basic payments as unconditional support – presumably on the same per-hectare basis as under the CAP – ties the hands of government to a large degree. That only leaves half of the approximately £600m annual budget for agriculture to be spent on measures to help restore nature and drive down emissions.

The nature and climate emergencies have not gone away, and if the food security crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that our food systems need to be more resilient.

A wholesale shift towards agroecological farming – alongside significant dietary change – will be required if Scotland is to meet its net zero ambition by 2045. Modelling by French think tank IDDRI and Food, Farming and Countryside Commission shows how that would be possible.

It will not be an easy journey, but it must start now, and emerging policy and legislation in Scotland must reflect that.