Where is the future for Scotland’s food and farming sectors?

11 Jun 2021

This blog, from Dr. Deborah Long, Chief Officer of Scottish Environment LINK, was first published in Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s magazine, Spring 2021.


Land use and land ownership is a live issue in Scotland. Debate around who owns Scotland and what they do with that land has never gone away. How land is managed is coming into sharper focus now in the face of climate and nature emergencies. Land management is fundamental to how Scotland can meet our climate targets plus reduce the ongoing loss of biodiversity and improve the wellbeing  of Scotland’s people.


Who benefits from land use is also key. We all benefit from land use; those who work the land, who live on it and in communities supported by it, those who visit and those who depend on the services it provides, like clean water, healthy food, flood control, health and wellbeing through contact with nature.


Taken together, this all points in a direction of a much wider set of goals for the farming sector than those relating purely to food production and carries a clear implication that a much wider range of interests and voices should be involved in shaping its future.


There is distinct acknowledgement at the highest levels of Government that the climate and environment emergencies require a radical change in approach to the way we manage and use our land, to address the challenges we face: The challenges facing biodiversity are as important as the challenge of climate change, and I want Scotland to be leading the way in our response. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, July 2019. 


In early 2019, the Scottish Parliament debated future rural policy in light of the UK voting to leave the EU. As a result, the Farming and Food Production – Future Policy Group (FFP-FPG) was established by the then Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, to develop and make recommendations for policy from 2024 onwards. This group, launched in June 2019, has so far not been able to publish its findings.


While the Future Policy Group has been unable to publish their report to date (June 2021), farmer led groups have also been tasked with identifying ways forwards for each farming sector in response to climate change. They have all published reports.


The gap that remains is the original remit of the Future Policy Group to map out the current context and the future direction of policy travel needed. Without this strategic overview, the sector led plans will need to come together to identify and fill gaps and eliminate overlaps. Farms in Scotland need clear pathways towards farm profitability in a net zero  and nature positive future.


To this end there are a number of principles that would guide the direction of travel for Scotland, would cover cross sectoral concerns and would provide the context for sector led actions. These include the following:


1: Ambitious, coherent, clear and measurable objectives: able to contribute to meeting Scotland’s net zero obligations and biodiversity targets, meet local food needs and reflect the need to sustain and enhance natural resources and the services our land provides.


2: Payments and interventions: must deliver clear outcomes that meet policy objectives for society, economy and the environment.


3: Effective ambition: food, farming and other Scottish Government policy goals must be aligned. These include meeting local food needs and increasing the availability and accessibility of healthy sustainable food.


4: Investment in research, knowledge transfer and innovation: to support and facilitate the rapid transition to a sustainable rural economy, with pilot projects and demonstrations and a fit for purpose advisory service enabling all to benefit.

5: Protection, restoration and investment in biodiversity and natural capital: to ensure future generations have access to fully functioning ecosystems and services, including healthy soil, clean water and air, species diversity from genes to pollinators. Agroecological principles are key.


6: Fair and proportionate policy creation: the costs of implementation and regulation must be shared fairly and proportionate to environmental, societal and economic benefits


7: Wide collaboration and buy in: must be central to future land use decisions. National ambitions, priorities and targets should match with local realities, knowledge and aspirations


8: Just Transition principles must be central: transformation has far-reaching implications for people across Scotland.


With CoP15 in October and CoP26 in November and the need to act within this Decade of Ecosystem Restoration to achieve change, Scotland must act now. We need to be ambitious, given the opportunity we have to learn lessons and step outside the constraints of the Common Agricultural Policy.  We need to offer a clear direction of travel. Farmers, land managers and food producers need to know where Scotland’s future rural policy is heading in order to prepare for the future and target their investment and activity effectively and efficiently.

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