AECS funding and organic farming support
AECS funding and organic farming support
The Scottish Government has announced the launch of the 2023 Agri Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) round – including changes to support for organic farming.
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands Mairi Gougeon visited a farm entering organic conversion in Selkirkshire to publicise the opening of another funding round on January 30th.
Ms Gougeon said a total of 680 businesses will share more than £14million through AECS this year, with the upcoming round targeting agri-environment measures, slurry storage, and organic farming support. This includes some changes that the government hopes will help towards its commitment to doubling organic land within this parliamentary term (to 2026).
At Soil Association, we know that conversion to organic farming can reduce emissions and improve biodiversity – two key targets for this government.
What are the changes?
For this upcoming AECS round, the Scottish Government has suspended the area cap for payments for conversion to, and maintenance of, organic farming. This applies to new applicants, but also to existing contract holders with land in excess of the caps.
This change reflects one of the asks of the Scottish Organic Stakeholders Group report, Pointing the way towards an Organic Action Plan, which was published last year.
The thinking behind this was to ensure that holdings large and small were not dissuaded from applying or disadvantaged in terms of public support. We will watch with interest to see how this suspension of the area cap affects the uptake amongst farmers and land managers, and the implications for the wider supply chain.
The second element to highlight for this year is the support available for small-scale organic growers and market gardeners. Payments of £500 are available for those businesses that are registered with the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments Division (RPID) and can help to cover the annual cost of certification. This element of support has not been communicated clearly in the past, and we would encourage anyone interested to contact their certifying body or their local RPID office for advice.
Challenges for the sector
Whilst we welcome the continued commitment to supporting organic farming and agri-environment schemes, there remain serious challenges facing the sector in Scotland.
In particular, the continued loss of local abattoir provision is severely impacting upon organic red meat producers. A critical number of Scottish organic producers have no appropriate abattoir within a feasible travelling distance, which is resulting in leakage from organic stock into conventional supply chains and forcing farmers to consider if their organic status, or small herd, is economical.
This is an issue which has been raised with Scottish Government by the Scottish Organic Stakeholders Group (SOSG) and Soil Association Scotland. The creation of a new role focused on organic sector development within Scotland Food and Drink is also helping greatly to co-ordinate a response to these issues – both in the short-term and longer-term.
It also underlines why we need a new Organic Action Plan – to provide strategic direction that covers all aspects of organic food and farming – conversion support, advisory services, research, supply chain support, market development and public procurement. Soil Association Scotland continues to work with the SOSG and Scottish Government to develop that plan.
Other elements of AECS this year
The AECS round this year also includes a focus on slurry storage. With the exception of areas designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, any business that currently houses livestock on slurry-based systems with less than six months storage capacity will be eligible to apply.
Some AECS options will not be available this year, including restoring drystone or flagstone dykes, pond creation, muirburn or heather cutting and treatment of bracken. The creation of hedgerows option will be restricted to 500 linear metres per application.
Future AECS funding
Given the pressure on departmental budgets across government, the commitment to continued AECS funding for 2023 – and ongoing recognition of the need to support organic farming – is very welcome.
However, we agree with Scottish Environment LINK that the budget for agri-environment measures (including organic farming support) will have to increase in future years if the Scottish Government is to deliver on its Vision for Agriculture.
We set out our thinking on this in more detail in our response to the recent consultation on a new Agriculture Bill, and we await further detail from government on the new, post-CAP system for farm support.