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EDDIE GILLANDERS: 'Lack of information over farm policy is identified as great threat'

By Eddie Gillanders

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THE Scottish Government’s continued failure to come up with detailed proposals for future agricultural policy has, surprisingly, been identified as the greatest threat facing Scottish farming in an intensions survey of farmers and crofters carried out by NFU Scotland earlier this month.

Mairi Gougeon
Mairi Gougeon

The survey attracted 555 responses – the largest response the union has ever received to a survey – with 64 per cent of respondents citing future agricultural policy as the most significant threat.

“This survey, with responses from all parts of the country and all sectors, is a robust reflection of the sombre mood of Scotland’s farmers and crofters as we enter an incredibly challenging 2023,” said NFUS president, Martin Kennedy.

“In the coming weeks, we will examine the huge amount of data from the survey which is already giving us real insight about the immediate future for Scotland’s food and farming sectors.

“Already some headlines are stark but unsurprising. It’s evident that the number one concern of those producing the nation’s food is the growing uncertainty around what Scotland’s future agricultural policy will look like beyond 2025 and what measures will be open to farmers and crofters for support as part of that policy.”

It is more than two years since former rural minister, Fergus Ewing, the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, set the wheels in motion for a new agricultural policy by setting up several farmer-led groups to make recommendations for each of the major sectors of Scottish agriculture.

And it’s more than a year since his successor, Marie Gougeon, established an Agricultural Reform Implementation Oversight Board (AGIOB) to take the proposals forward.

Not much has happened since then apart from some tinkering at the edges to prepare farmers for a future policy which is likely to focus on active farming and climate change rather than the current CAP-based policy of area payments which is the legacy of the UK’s membership of the EU.

Farmers have been crying out for months for more detail on what future agricultural policy is going to look like and how they will have to adapt their farming practices and policies.

There have been a few false dawns along the way. A major announcement was fully expected in September which proved a damp squib with no meaningful outcome which led to the huge farmers’ demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament in November when Ms Gougeon assuaged farmers by saying she would make a statement in Parliament the following week which proved equally uninformative and didn’t take things any further.

Ms Gougeon in fairness has given assurances along the way that future policy will major on food production which has been welcomed but farmers are asking what on earth the ARIOB group has been doing for the past year? The answer seems to be having their ideas rebuffed by civil servants with their own agenda.

However, it is understood that Ms Gougeon has accepted an invitation from NFUS to attend the union’s AGM on February 10 and is fully expected to make a major statement on policy then. We will see. If she doesn’t, all hell will break loose as farmers’ patience is wearing thin.

The increasing uncertainty is already eroding confidence, Mr Kennedy says, causing too many farmers to question their futures which, ultimately, will threaten Scotland’s food security, together with its environmental integrity and economic prosperity.

“NFU Scotland has repeatedly called for Scottish Government to put potential ‘enhanced support’ options in the public domain in the wake of its consultation on an Agriculture Bill,” he points out.

“Had Scottish Government listened to the industry and its own farmer-led groups, we could have introduced some of the measures last year and already be started on our post-Brexit transition away from the Common Agriculture Policy and towards the delivery of what are rapidly becoming increasing demands to address climate and biodiversity targets.

“Instead, politics and bureaucracy within Scottish Government appear to be holding back an industry ready to make a difference.

“In a few weeks’ time, we look forward to welcoming the Cabinet Secretary to our AGM, dinner and conference in Glasgow where there will be a huge expectation that more detail will be shared with farmers and crofters on what they will be asked to do so that they can get on with preparing to deliver for Scotland with more certainty and confidence.”

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