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EDDIE GILLANDERS: Gougeon must hit the ground running on agricultural policy move

By Eddie Gillanders

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SO, Marie Gougeon has been reappointed Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs by the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, despite the job being offered first to his main rival for the top job, Kate Forbes.

Kate Forbes (left) was offered the rural affairs job post but turned it down, and Marie Gougeon was reappointed.
Kate Forbes (left) was offered the rural affairs job post but turned it down, and Marie Gougeon was reappointed.

Hardly reassuring for Marie that she has the full confidence of her boss, being the second choice for the job.

Farmers might have welcomed Kate as rural secretary as, with her “get up and go” approach, she might just have been the right person to shake things up and deliver the long-awaited new agricultural policy which farmers are desperately looking for and which Ms Gougeon has manifestly failed to deliver.

Getting a grip of the agriculture and food portfolio is not an easy task for any politician but Ms Gougeon should by now have the advantage of a firm grasp of the industry and its complexities.

She listens wells and makes all the right promises about the importance of agriculture and food production but the development of a new agricultural policy, which is due to be implemented just two years from now, is still at the embryo state despite being started more than two years ago by her predecessor, Fergus Ewing, with the appointment of farmer-led groups for each sector to advise on the policies needed.

It’s no secret that policy decisions are being held back by senior civil servants who have been accused by senior figures in the industry – particularly former NFU president, Jim Walker, who chaired the advisory group on beef – of having their own agenda to decimate Scotland’s beef industry to help Scotland reach net zero more quickly.

Farmers will be looking for Ms Gougeon to take a tougher line following her reappointment.

Meantime, NFU Scotland president, Martin Kennedy, has wasted no time in demanding an early meeting with the First Minister to reiterate the importance of the food and drink sector to Scotland’s economy, directly and indirectly supporting 360,000 jobs.

“Food and drink is the major driver of trade both at home and abroad worth billions of pouds, putting it at the heart of Scotland’s economy,” Mr Kennedy points out.

“With 65,000 people working in Scottish agriculture, farmers and crofters are the cornerstone of that growing food and drink sector. As we debate Scotland’s future agricultural policy, we must look to put sustainable food production and our future food security front and centre.”

Mr Kennedy said he would welcome an opportunity to have the First Minister visit some farms to see first-hand the incredible job Scottish farmers and crofters are doing to sustainably produce food, tackle climate change and bolster biodiversity.

One of the issues which Mr Kennedy will no doubt be raising – although perhaps not highest priority at the present time – is the Scottish Government’s continued refusal to allow Scottish farmers to embrace new precision breeding technology.

The government has consistently held to the highly questionable view that the adoption of modern genetic technology would undermine the Scotch brand and chose not to partake in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill which passed through the UK parliament last week.

The government view chimes with the EU and, given the SNP’s long term aim of returning an independent Scotland to the EU, the government has decided to wait for the outcome of an EU Commission review of future gene editing regulations before deciding how to proceed although there is little doubt that it will align with the EU position.

This head-in-the-sand attitude flies in the face of all the scientific evidence about the safety of gene editing. It’s not the same as genetic modification which there was an outcry about several years ago because of the possibility of introducing genes from one species to another.

Gene edited organisms don’t contain DNA from different species and only produce changes that are being made already but much more slowly by traditional breeding methods.

NFU Scotland makes the point that plant and animal breeding can be used to produce better crops and livestock with characteristics that will benefit animal welfare, public health, the environment and food security.

“Given that gene editing is different to genetic modification, we hope the government will support the use of the technology,” said Mr Kennedy.

It is ironic that Scotland, with its world-leading and highly respected agricultural research institutes, is being held back from exploring the opportunities which this new technology could offer Scottish farmers.

“The passing of the bill means we will have a two-tier system within the UK with Scottish farmers stuck in the lower tier and at a competitive disadvantage,” Mr Kennedy warns.

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