Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board minutes: 30 September 2021

Minutes of the meeting of the Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board, held on 30 September 2021.

Attendees and apologies

  • Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands    (co-chair)    
  • Martin Kennedy (co-chair)    

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

Members were welcomed and apologies noted. The Chair observed that the meeting took place in an environment in which the agriculture industry is very keen to tackle climate change and that the work of the Board could build on a very high level of commitment from farmers. 

Cabinet Secretary reminded the Board that in accordance with the terms of reference, discussions between members and between members and supporting officials must always be conducted in a way that shows respect and allows arguments and evidence to be presented in a safe and supportive environment. 

Minutes of previous meeting and actions arising

The minutes of the previous meeting were reviewed and corrections incorporated

The Board were updated on the progress of actions arising.

In discussion, the Board felt that animal health deserved greater coverage, either as part of the COP package or longer-term, particularly when this sector could achieve 10% of the intended emissions reductions. If resourced properly, this could be a cost-effective way of reducing emissions and improving productivity through co-ordinating industry-scale action rather than at individual farm level. 

The Board were very clear that behavioural change is a key factor in delivering transformative change, and that the framing of the message, combined with appropriate incentives, will undoubtedly help with this. Lines of communication need to pivot from top-down dissemination of information towards facilitating a shared, peer-to-peer exchange of experience. Investment, opportunity and ambition should replace terminology such as scheme and support. The critical role of supply chain partners in enabling change, should also not be underestimated.

Chair agreed with the points made and these two issues will be tabled for future discussion.

Pilots and next steps

SG Officials provided an overview of the objectives of the work, focusing on the three pillars of climate change, nature restoration and high quality food production, using robust baseline data, and available to all farmers, land-owners, crofters etc. Measures identified are intended to lead to both business efficiency and profitability, and will be tested at small scale before being rolled out more widely, and will provide the basis on which a performance-based payments system can be developed,  enabling Scottish farmers to become global leaders in sustainable farming. 

Officials noted the clear steer from the Board relating to behaviour change, and noted that further refinement of the proposals will be an iterative process but reassured the Board that the tests of change will have inbuilt verification and compliance mechanisms to ensure that reliable evaluation can be undertaken.

In terms of scale, it was reiterated that some measures will be available to all, and so a significant number of farmers and crofters will be included in this testing stage, but not so wide as to prevent being able to assess outputs accurately. 

The Board discussed that they had been presented with a good number of good proposals but they are disjointed and needed to be drawn together. Innovation should be fostered by a strategic vision and implementation tools that will move things forward at pace. However, there were mixed views on whether that strategic direction had been clearly set out.  

It was felt that the proposals could be more ambitious and innovative, focussing more on creating new, rather than further developing existing measures, and that they should facilitate rapid action, noting that it has been six months since the Farmer-led Groups produced their recommendations. There was a clear steer that future schemes must deliver demonstrable outcomes that reduce emissions.

It was noted that the proposals also lacked clarity on governance as well as what contingencies would be implemented should the pilots prove unsuccessful.

Ultimately, the key aim to piloting should be a whole farm approach to sustainable farming which engages every farmer from the outset. Rolling out wide scale carbon audits on farm as a matter of urgency may advance this.  Some of the proposals will yield a good return in reduction in the emissions of carbon in the short-term and those deemed of lower value at present will likely yield results in the longer-term. It was agreed that ensuring robust baselining and universal involvement and will be key to making pilots a success. 

Many of the Board were of the view that thought has to be given to incentivising buy-in, and that any payment structure must be linked to desired outcomes. Barriers to uptake must be considered, acknowledging that finance will be at the heart of it. There is a recognition that some farmers do not fully understand how to effectively address on-farm emissions and therefore, it may be advantageous to concentrate on specific areas with “champion” farms that can be showcased as best practice and wrap that up within a communications strategy. It was agreed that while we are not yet at the stage of launching a new payments system, communications must be urgently fleshed out. A communications sub-group, featuring members of the Board, was suggested and an action was noted to investigate this.

It was noted that Scotland as a land asset in a wider context must be considered, particularly the areas with no “productivity” that are however sequestering carbon. Scotland’s production requirements must be considered as part of this wider context.

The Board noted that outcome-based systems generate real interest in the industry and highlighted the importance of the Conditional Support - Environment and Efficiency Gains Pilot, suggesting that bringing in NatureScot to broaden it out would improve it further. There was also some discussion of moving funding to resource NatureScot advisors for POBAS work to assist on farm as a conduit to wholescale farm change.

Chair sought to bring consensus on the broader principles in terms of the package of measures, while noting the components were deemed reasonable if a little disjointed. Chair and officials will aim to be:

  • more ambitious and innovative within the existing legal and financial parameters
  • acknowledge the need to address behavioural change
  • consider how to develop effective communications

The Co-chair advised a joint SG/stakeholder Policy Development Group will meet as a matter of urgency to further develop the proposals, taking into account the Board’s comments. Officials will also include the work of NatureScot on the nature value of holdings, building on POBAS work.  

Co-chair reminded the Board that any immediate measures must be implemented in a manageable way within legal and budgetary constraints. 

Chair thanked members for attendance and helpful discussion on the papers as presented.

Next meeting 12 October, 13:30 – 15:30

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