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Eddie Gillanders: Kate Forbes might have been right person to shake things up as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs?

By Eddie Gillanders

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WE may well have a new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs in the Scottish Parliament.

It looks as if Marie Gougeon, the current holder of the post is on her way out following the news that Kate Forbes, who came close to becoming First Minister, has turned down the offer of new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, to take on the rural affairs portfolio.

Kate Forbes would have been a popular choice as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs. Picture: James Mackenzie
Kate Forbes would have been a popular choice as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs. Picture: James Mackenzie

That’s a pity 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.

Ms Forbes is perhaps deliberately seeking to avoid being associated with the “continuity” policies of Mr Yousaf, which she lambasted in the election campaign, which would leave her untainted to challenge if a vacancy arises again for a First Minister, which might be sooner than we think, given the record of Mr Yousaf in the previous government roles he has held.

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, as the nation’s biggest manufacturing sector, 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.”

Mairi Gougeon failed to deliver, in Eddie Gillanders and others opinion.
Mairi Gougeon failed to deliver, in Eddie Gillanders and others opinion.

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 the one of highest priority at the present time – is the Scottish Government’s continued refusal to allow Scottish farmers to embrace new precision breeding technology which could transform the livestock sector.

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.

First Minister Huma Yousaf.
First Minister Huma Yousaf.

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

“New varieties of crops with desirable traits will help farmers and are an important piece of the sustainable farming jigsaw. They can be used as part of a future farming system that will better achieve sustainable practices that politicians and farmers want to see, such as integrated pest management and regenerative farming and move us to a net zero future.”

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 now 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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