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Eddie Gillanders: Is farming a top priority for First Minister contenders?

By Eddie Gillanders

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So, who’s it going to be? Kate, Humza or Ash? As far as farmers are concerned, it’s probably not going to make a lot of difference who the new First Minister is as farming and food production doesn’t seem to figure prominently on the “to do” list of priorities for any of the three contenders.

The candidates from left: Ash Regan, Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf.
The candidates from left: Ash Regan, Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf.

It would, of course, be nice to get someone from outwith the central belt in to Scotland’s top political position and at least Kate Forbes has acknowledged the importance of supporting business to achieve growth in the Scottish economy.

Hopefully, she recognises that farming is a business as well as a way of life, and her election would, hopefully, herald the end of the SNP’s unholy alliance with the Green Party.

It is significant, but not surprising, that it was a Green Party councillor who attempted to block planning permission for Simpson Malt’s proposed new malting plant at Rothes, as reported in this column last week.

The election of a new First Minister also raises the question of who will survive in the Cabinet. For farmers the big question is whether Marie Gougeon will continue as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Mairi McAllan as environment minister.

Farmers will be looking for a new Cabinet Secretary with more grip to get the move towards a new agricultural policy moving at a faster pace – if allowed to by civil servants who still seem bent on decimating the national beef herd to help meet the Scottish Government’s grossly over-ambitious carbon reduction targets.

The chairs of the five farmer-led groups, established by Ms Gougeon’s predecessor, Fergus Ewing in 2021 to advise on future agricultural policy, didn’t mince their words when invited recently to meet the cross-party rural affairs and islands committee at the Scottish Parliament.

The chairman of the beef group, Jim Walker, a past-president of NFU Scotland and former chairman of the Scotch Quality Beef and Lamb Association, even went to the lengths of speaking to the committee by video link from Australia to tell MSPs that civil servants were taking an “infantile” approach to negotiations on a new agricultural policy.

“While Scotland is still talking about carbon neutral beef, the rest of the world is moving on and leaving us behind,” Mr Walker declared. “Scottish Government officials are taking the approach they have favoured since day one, which is to reduce cow numbers, without taking into account the socio-economic impact that it would have.”

The deputy convener of the committee, Beatrice Wishart, claimed that agriculture was the third largest source of carbon emissions and asked the panel members to indicate the key areas of emissions reduction and mitigation measures in each sector.

Scottish pig industry group chairman, Andy McGowan, pointed out that the industry had, by its own efforts, reduced global warming potential by 40 per cent in the past 20 years. Less than two per cent of the reduction could be attributed to government policies.

Eddie Gillanders wants farming to rank as a higher priority.
Eddie Gillanders wants farming to rank as a higher priority.

Dairy sector representative, Jackie McCreery, said enteric fermentation and manure management were the main areas where dairy farmers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions while arable group chairman, Andrew Moir, pointed out that 60 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from arable farming related to nitrous oxide derived from fertiliser and soil management.

“We have 43 ways of mitigating the effects of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “Figures are continuing to reduce with more work underway.”

The hill, upland and crofting group’s Claire Simonetta from Mull said targeted livestock grazing could make a huge contribution to the climate solution if animals grazed fragile and important habitats, which could help maintain carbon stores already in the ground.

Conservative MSP, Rachael Hamilton, Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary, said the comments from the farmer-led group representatives were “eye opening”.

“Ministers should have been squirming in their seats and feel ashamed tuning into this session,” she said. “These key figures from the industry didn’t hold back.

“The dithering and delaying over future policy should be a source of shame for ministers.

“This perilous situation can’t continue for farmers, crofters and the whole of the agri sector.”

Ms Gougeon said one of the biggest issues was future funding of agricultural support. The Scottish Government no longer had long-term certainty of funding as the UK Government had provided no indication of how the £93 million which Scotland was set to lose when EU funding stopped in 2025 was to be replaced.

Just one of the many challenges facing the new First Minister when he or she takes office. Let’s hope it is given some priority.

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