Evidence sessions on the Ag Bill
Soil Association Scotland will be back in Holyrood next week to give evidence to the parliament’s Rural Affairs and Islands Committee on the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill.
This legislation aims to deliver on the Scottish Government’s Vision for Agriculture and provide a new framework for future support for agriculture and rural development to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The committee sessions follow calls for written evidence on the Bill, and form part of the Stage 1 process of parliamentary scrutiny.
We set out in advance of the Bill’s publication some of the areas that we would like to see addressed, and we outlined in last month’s policy blog how the Bill lined up with those ‘key asks’.
This month, we will look in a bit more detail at some of the areas of interest for the committee, such as the proposed Code of Practice for Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture and whether the Bill has the right objectives to deliver on the Vision.
We have acknowledged that the framework bill approach is the right one, although we have applied some caveats. For example, much of the detail, particularly around funding splits and payment rates, will come via secondary legislation.
That means there will be less opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of decisions that will have a significant bearing on whether the Scottish Government is able to meet its statutory targets for emissions reduction from agriculture and (pending the Natural Environment Bill next year) legally-binding targets for nature restoration.
We think the Bill as drafted lacks detail, while at the same time granting Ministers wide ranging powers. The legislation would benefit from greater clarity on how Ministers intend to use those powers.
Our written response also suggested that an opportunity has been missed to align the way in which we support food production (through the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill) with the ambition of the Good Food Nation Act and the National Good Food Plan in relation to the wider food system, including tackling food waste and improving dietary health outcomes.
The right objectives?
The overarching objectives of the legislation are: the adoption and use of sustainable and regenerative farming practices, the production of high-quality food, the facilitation of on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation and enabling rural communities to thrive.
We think the Bill could go further. The Scottish Government is committed to aligning with changes to EU policy and legislation. Supporting documents published alongside the Bill state that Scotland needs to 'move away' from current CAP schemes while staying 'aligned on outcomes'. There is a strong argument to be made, therefore, that Scotland should adopt some elements of the 10 key objectives for the new EU CAP 2023-27.
For example, we would like to see the inclusion of animal health and welfare, and natural resource management (e.g. for soil and water quality) while we also support the call from the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) to include an objective on ‘strengthening the position of farmers in the value chain’. The Bill would also benefit from clearer definitions, for example, on what constitutes ‘high quality food production’ and whether the method of production and nutritional content of food might be important factors.
Rural Support Plan
We welcome the provision for a Rural Support Plan (RSP) every five years. The function of the RSP should be to set out how the Scottish Government is going to use public money to deliver on its strategic priorities in each five-year period.
We think the RSP needs a plan for monitoring and evaluation to ensure value for public money and to measure progress towards meeting government objectives. The plan must also be subject to a process of parliamentary scrutiny - including by the Rural Affairs and Islands committee.
Ideally, the Rural Support Plan should describe each scheme that will be funded and its purpose, provide indicative budgets for the five-year period, and outline what the expected outcomes are in terms of reduced GHG emissions or increased biodiversity.
Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture
We have previously said that it is important for the Scottish Government to define 'sustainable and regenerative' agriculture, and this Code of Practice will allow Ministers to do that, and to outline the methods the Scottish Government considers to be best practice.
Unlike organic, there are no legally defined standards or underlying regulation of regenerative farming. However, increasing numbers of farmers in Scotland and other parts of the world are embracing this approach, and there is a tangible sense of momentum around so-called ‘regen ag’.
Many of those who consider themselves to be regenerative adhere to a set of five guiding principles – minimising soil disturbance, keeping the soil surface covered, maintaining living roots in the soil, growing a diverse range of crops and bringing grazing animals back to the land.
This reflects the systems approach of organic or agroecological farming, with similar ambitions to improve soil health, build fertility, recycle nutrients and encourage greater diversity. We think this is line with the ‘whole farm approach’ in the Vision for Agriculture, but interpretations of ‘regenerative’ differ and there is no guarantee that these principles are being adhered to in all cases. There is a risk of greenwashing and we need clarity on whether this Code of Practice will have any legal status.
We look forward to discussing these points and more in our evidence session next week. The Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill will be working its way through parliament until next summer, so there is time and opportunity for MSPs to improve it before it becomes law.