Guest blog by Andrew Stark, Land Use Policy Officer and Chris Bailey, Advisory Manager Scotland

Since the last edition of Farming E-News, there has been several important developments in Scotland’s food and farming policy to update on. Whilst there have been a lot of proposals put forward, questions remain both about the long-term vision for Scottish agriculture as well as how effective these policies will be in addressing the nature and climate crises. Read on to find out more.

Background – how we got here
Since leaving the EU, all the UK countries have separately (since agriculture is a devolved issue) had to bring forward a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy. In Scotland, the Scottish Government committed to a period of ‘Stability and Simplicity’ for farmers and crofters over the next few years with the aim of introducing a new rural policy from 2024 onwards. The “Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Act 2020” requires Scottish Ministers to ‘…lay a report before the Scottish Parliament on progress towards establishing a new Scottish agricultural policy’ no later than 31 December 2024 whilst the powers to modify CAP schemes remains in force until 7 May 2026. RSPB and other agricultural and landholding stakeholders – including National Farmers Union for Scotland (NFUS) - have been pressing the Scottish Government to bring forward policies and proposals for what this ‘new Scottish agricultural policy’ will look like, to ensure a smooth transition before the end of 2024. It is also worth noting that the current Scottish Government wish to remain aligned with the EU on several policy fronts, including agriculture.

Recent developments – what is the government proposing?
Since May’s Scottish Parliament elections, there have been several different policy announcements from the new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon, on what Scotland’s future rural policy will include:

  • There was a commitment to take forward many of the recommendations of the five sectoral Farmer Led Groups reports written just before the election (suckler beef, arable, pig, dairy and hill, upland and crofting). As their title suggests, these groups were predominantly comprised of farmers and were asked to ‘develop advice and proposals to the Scottish Government on how to cut emissions and tackle climate change’. Whilst the Groups came forward with some helpful climate related proposals, overall, they gave less consideration to biodiversity issues and did not go far enough on climate. They are however a helpful contribution to thinking about what is needed in terms of post-CAP support but far from the overall answer.
  • An Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (ARIOB) was set up by the Government as per the SNP election manifesto commitments to “support implementation of policy reform, incorporating the relevant recommendations from the farmer-led groups”. This Board, co-chaired by Mairi Gougeon and Martin Kennedy (NFUS President), has a range of stakeholders (including welcome representation from RSPB Scotland) related to agriculture has had several meetings since being established. Work is ongoing to make sure that Board has an expansive remit and considers the scale of the nature and climate crisis in relation to Agriculture.
  • At the same time as announcing the launch of ARIOB, the Government also launched a consultation 'Agricultural transition - first steps towards our national policy: consultation', based on the work of Farmer Led Groups. This consultation included questions on baselining of data, capital funding, biodiversity, a Just Transition, carbon sequestration, productivity, research and development, knowledge & skills and supply chains.
  • At the end of October Scottish Government and ARIOB announced a ‘National Test Programme’. We are awaiting more details around what the content of this will be, but so far, we know that it will be supporting pilots beginning next spring, with up to £51 million of investment over the following three years. It aims to “support and encourage farmers and crofters to learn about how their work impacts on climate and nature, including offering financial support to carry out carbon audits and nutrient management plans. This will establish a clear baseline and options for action for all who participate.”

The outcome of the consultation and pilots developed through the National Test programme will help Scottish Government design and target their replacements for our current policies. It is intended that they will inform the new Agricultural Bill legislation with a further consultation on the content planned for 2022, with hopefully final legislation brought forward to parliament in 2023. RSPB will look to engage throughout the process to ensure that public funding supports farmers and crofters to farm in a wildlife and climate friendly way. Whilst we are pleased that this work has started, we remain concerned that it does not go far enough to help the agricultural industry address the climate and nature crisis. We need more farmers to follow the example of those involved in the Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Funded “Bringing Biodiversity back project” who have made changes to the way they manage their land to reduce their footprints on the environment. Please do have a look at the videos hosted by the Nature Friendly Farming Network and their excellent report Rethink Farming – A Practical Guide for Farming, Nature & Climate. These are some examples of farmers taking the lead.

Machair habitat, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Image (c) Ed Marshall (RSPB)

Agri Environment Climate Scheme – continued funding for nature and climate!
Whilst it is important that we think about future policies there was also a need to provide support to farmers and crofters in the short-term whilst these policies are developed. The Scottish Government has recently recommitted to reopening the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) in 2022, 2023 & 2024. This is a very welcome commitment and will allow for the continuation of positive environmental farm management in Scotland, critical for the future of species and habitats such as curlew, corncrake and machair. Read more in our twitter thread here and to see more of how AECS support Scottish farmers and crofters, watch this video RSPB made with Kinclune Estate and Organic Farm, who also recently won the Food and Farming Award at the 2021 Nature of Scotland Awards. RSPB will be helping farmers apply for the AECS funding over the next few years to make the most of the government funding.

What’s new in food policy?
RSPB Scotland, alongside the Scottish Food Coalition, have long been campaigners for food system change in order to fix a broken food system so that it works better for not only people but the environment too. In Scotland, the key mechanism to achieve this is through a Good Food Nation Bill, the name for the piece of legislation to allow for the necessary changes to our food system. We have been long campaigning for this to be brought forward and were delighted to see it introduced to the Scottish Parliament last month.
However, it is not anywhere near as strong as it needs to be and you can read more of the Coalition’s analysis here. Agriculture has a key role to play in fixing our food system and ensuring that we have a healthy environment for current and future generations. We will be working with other stakeholders to ensure that the Good Food Nation Bill can be part of the solution.