The new Agriculture Bill – our key asks
The parliamentary summer recess comes to an end next week, with MSPs returning to Edinburgh and the government preparing to announce its legislative programme for the year ahead.
It is widely expected that a new Agriculture Bill will be a key part of that agenda.
The Bill will provide a framework to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which was effectively continued in Scotland after the UK’s departure from the EU.
What will this Bill do?
The Scottish Government has said the Bill will deliver on the Vision for Agriculture, published in March last year, which set overarching goals for high-quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.
It is expected to grant powers to ministers on agricultural and rural development policy, while enabling tailored provisions and support to be outlined in secondary legislation.
What that means is that the Bill won’t include the detail of future policy – so nothing on eligibility or payment rates, for example.
Allowing for the fact that this is a framework bill, there is still an opportunity for the government to set out key principles to be applied to future policy, such as the fairer distribution of public funds to support agricultural activity.
What we want to see
The Bill should include a strong and well-defined purpose clause. This should link to the high-level policy ambitions covered by the Vision and recognise the need to drive transformational change to address the twin climate and nature emergencies.
Secondly, the Bill should require the government to produce a strategic plan for agriculture.
This should emulate the EU CAP Strategic Plan process, setting out a wide range of interventions and explaining how these will help meet the objectives of the Vision. This should be consistent with other government policy and legislation, including the Biodiversity Strategy, the Natural Environment Bill and the Land Reform Bill. This plan should be subject to a process of parliamentary scrutiny.
The Bill should also set clear programming periods. We agree with the government that the new support framework for agriculture must be flexible, but farmers and crofters are looking for long term certainty about the shape of public support for agriculture, so there needs to be a degree of stability.
The EU CAP ran in cycles, and the Scottish Government ideally should be aiming for something similar – from at least a three-year but anything up to a seven-year programming period – providing consistency and allowing for monitoring and evaluation of progress towards targets and objectives.
A fairer funding system
Along with other non-government organisations, Soil Association is also calling for a mechanism to be included to allow for redistributive payments to be made to help smaller farms. At present, the top 20% businesses take 63% of the budget, while the bottom 40% only receive 4.8%.
The CAP Strategic Plans Regulation introduced a mandatory requirement for EU member states to allocate at least 10% of direct support to redistributive payments, so that more of the budget is directed at small and medium sized farms. The Bill should allow for a delivery mechanism for frontloading support.
There are also targets that should be set within the Bill. For example, it could match the EU Farm to Fork Strategy ambition to reduce the overall use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% and the use of artificial fertilisers by 20% by 2030.
The Vision for Agriculture committed to accelerate the adoption of approaches and measures which minimise, reduce and remove the use of agrochemical inputs and increase the use of non-chemical related actions. To drive change, this should be made explicit in the Bill.
The Bill can also set a target to increase the amount of land managed organically.
The Vision states that the government wants to ‘encourage more farmers and crofters to farm and produce food organically’.
There is strong evidence to show that organic production systems lead to reductions in agricultural emissions and increases in on-farm biodiversity. Increased domestic production could also deliver economic benefits by meeting consumer demand for organic produce.
This, however, will only work if key sector challenges around processing capacity, supply chain infrastructure and market development are addressed. These challenges can be tackled through the promised Organic Food and Farming Action Plan, backed by investment from government and a collaborative approach between organic producers, retailers and other industry bodies.
We also think the Bill should support the greater integration of trees on farms and crofts, by setting an ambition to meet more of the government’s tree planting targets from agroforestry and farm woodland systems.
These are the headline points that we have identified in advance of the Bill’s publication (and we do not expect all of these issues to be addressed). There will be much more to pore through when the draft legislation is introduced to parliament.
One thing that is clear is that this Bill presents an opportunity for the Scottish Government to set a very clear direction of travel towards a food and farming system that can better deliver for climate and nature. We look forward to the next step in that process.