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2023 in review

2023 in review

It is hard to believe that we are at the end of another year, and it has been another busy and eventful 12 months for Soil Association Scotland.

Below are just a few highlights from a year that saw big changes at the top of Scottish politics, with Nicola Sturgeon stepping down as First Minister, as well as increasing signs of climate breakdown at home and abroad, with more extreme weather adding to the pressures facing farmers and crofters across the country.

Biofach Trade Fair

In February, Soil Association Scotland joined a Scottish delegation, led by Scotland Food and Drink, to the Biofach international trade fair for organic food, held in Nuremberg, Germany.

The trip proved inspiring and informative on many levels, not least to hear how governments in different countries have approached support for organic production as well as market development.

For example, in Germany, the federal government has set a goal to reach 30% organic land share by 2030, alongside a 30% target for organics in public procurement to drive domestic demand. Germany remains the largest market for organic food in Europe, worth more than 15.8billion Euros in 2021.

These figures dwarf what is happening in Scotland, where just over 2% of agricultural land at present is organic, with approximately 600 producers and processors.

However, the German example – as well as others such as Denmark and Ireland – can provide an inspiration for what is possible with the right combination of political will, government investment and strategic development measures agreed via a national Organic Action Plan. Work on that plan in Scotland starts in earnest in January, and Soil Association Scotland is already involved in that process.

Retained EU Law Bill

In March, Soil Association Scotland gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee on the implications for the devolved nations of the Retained EU Law Bill – which at the time threatened hundreds of pieces of legislation and regulation that had built up while the UK was a member of the EU.

We made the case as strongly as we could against deregulation, and for a robust process of parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of any attempt to amend or remove key legal protections for the environment.

A key element of the draft Bill – a sunset clause that would have swept away swathes of legislation at midnight on December 31, 2023 – was subsequently removed and the UK Government committed to taking a more targeted approach.

Our key point about scrutiny and oversight of what happens in future with any amendments or changes to EU law that was assimilated into UK legislation still stands.

Royal Highland Show

Turning to the Royal Highland Show in June, there was no shortage of discussion on the future of food production and government support for agriculture.

Scottish and UK Government Ministers – including First Minister Humza Yousaf and Secretary of State for Scotland Allister Jack – were all in attendance at Ingliston, alongside MPs and MSPs of all parties.

And while the media focused on contested issues such as beaver re-introduction and the approval of chemical usage for bracken control, the reality on the ground was much more nuanced.

Biodiversity Minister Lorna Slater put it well during her appearance at the Scottish Organic Stakeholders Group organic lunch when she said that the idea of farming and the environment being in competition needed to end.

And there was widespread agreement at the Scottish Land and Estates event with the Scottish Government and Scottish Forestry-led Integrated Trees Network. Farmers and foresters on the panel all shared the view that the careful integration of trees into farming and crofting systems was essential to help deliver on the government’s climate and nature objectives.

Soil Association Scotland also launched a joint policy position on integrating trees with NFU Scotland and Woodland Trust Scotland. We are continuing to work on the detail of future policy options, with more to come on that in the New Year.

Groundswell Outreach Falkland

Onto July and the first ever Groundswell event in Scotland at the Falkland Estate proved a huge success. There was a great energy among attendees throughout the day.

Soil Association Scotland was one of the main event sponsors, and we were joined by Chief Executive Helen Browning OBE for a panel discussion on agroforestry.

The only complaint was that there were so many interesting panel discussions to try and cover, one day was really not long enough! We hope that this event will be repeated in 2024.

Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill

In September, the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill was laid before parliament, following a consultation that Soil Association Scotland responded to, before producing a set of ‘key asks’ of the primary legislation.

Many of the points that we raised were taken on board and included in the Bill as introduced, and we were then asked to give evidence to the parliament’s Rural Affairs and Islands Committee in early December.

Those sessions continued throughout the month, and the committee is expected to produce its Stage 1 report early in the New Year, at which point there will be the first parliamentary debate on the Bill.

Next steps for 2024

We will continue our efforts to influence primary and secondary legislation – in partnership with other organisations – to try and ensure that future policy supports all farmers and crofters to make the transition to more climate and nature friendly farming practices.

We also expect to see a Natural Environment Bill brought forward next year, with statutory targets for nature restoration to match those set down in law for reducing GHG emissions. 

There is still a lot to do – with huge challenges facing farmers and crofters such as the impact of a changing climate, high inflation and the impact on production costs – but we remain committed to doing our best to help deliver policy solutions for a fairer, healthier and more sustainable food and farming system.