Royal Highland Show: First Minister's speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's speech at the Quality Meat Scotland breakfast.

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Thank you, Kate. I want to start by thanking you for your leadership – and for all the work you’ve done since taking over as Chair. I know it’s a very busy period, to say the least.

I also want to thank you for the invitation to breakfast!  The aroma of those bacon rolls is making me very, very hungry.

That is – of course - an important part of the Royal Highland Show experience. It’s a chance to sample some of Scotland’s world class food and drink. It’s also an opportunity to see – and to celebrate – the excellence of Scottish farming.

You only need to take a quick look around to see how much there is to celebrate. 

The livestock, the food and drink, the technology – it all speaks to the strengths of our rural economy – and the vibrancy of this sector. 

The statistics shows the significance of your contribution. Agriculture accounts for 67,000 jobs, across the country. You are of course especially vital to our rural economy. And beyond that economic contribution, you play a vital role as producers of our food – and as custodians of the land.

So my main message for today is a very big thank you. The Scottish Government hugely values the role you play in making Scotland a stronger, more productive, and more prosperous country.

We are determined to support you. Today, I want to talk about three quite specific areas where we’re doing that. But before that, I want to give an update on two issues which have been dominant ones for the sector, over the past few years.

The first is farm payments. As we’ve said before, our failures – and the problems with the system, particularly in 2016 and 2017 – were completely unacceptable.  

Sorting them out has been a priority for us. And year on year, we have made progress.

For example, through our loan schemes for basic payments – 90% of this year’s entitlement has already been paid out. Those payments have also been made before any other part of the UK.

This year, Pillar 1 payments began 3 weeks earlier than last year. For Pillar 2 payments, it was 2 months earlier. So far, we have paid out just over £500 million to farm and crofting businesses, and into the rural economy. That is 14% more than at this stage in 2018.

I can also announce today that we have now met the EU payment threshold of 95.24% on basic, greening and young farmer payments.

This is the earliest point at which we’ve announced that – since our new system came online.

That demonstrates the progress we’ve made.  We promised to improve the payments system, and we are delivering on that promise.

I know this directly affects many people in this room. I’m also aware that – even if many of you have received payments – some of you won’t yet have done.  However, I hope the progress we’re making has made a positive difference to most of you.

The second thing I want to talk about – and I hope this won’t put you off your breakfast! – is the issue of Brexit.

When I last spoke at the Royal Highland Show – in 2017 –  it was exactly the same day that the UK Government began Brexit negotiations with the EU. So it beggars belief that – two years on – the uncertainty is if anything – even greater. 

You all know my view.  I believe that – given the situation the UK finds itself in – the decision on Brexit should now return to the people. If that referendum went ahead, we would obviously advocate very strongly for staying in the EU – as the best way of protecting Scotland’s interests.

However, we’re continuing to prepare for every eventuality. That’s why we have urged the UK Government to ensure that – if they pursue no deal – our farmers and crofters are properly compensated. 

It’s also why we’ve also repeatedly pressed them for certainty on the future of farm payments. Again, it’s an area where the UK Government has been unable to provide any meaningful assurances.

As things stand, we only know that contracts entered into before March 2020 for EU funds will be honoured. The UK Government has also committed to extend ‘farm support’ until the end of this Parliament – in 2022.  But it’s very unclear what that commitment means, in practice.

The Scottish Government has made it clear that – if the UK does decide to leave the EU –  we will implement a 5 year period for the transition from CAP. In doing so, we are seeking to ensure that –  under the worst case scenario – your sector will have a degree of certainty about the future, until 2024.

It means that – under no deal – CAP schemes remain as they are in Scotland until 2021. For the three years after that, we will maintain the current schemes, but with changes to simplify them. Those changes will seek to address some of the long-standing problems farmers have identified – to do with mapping errors, penalty rates and the complexity of the inspection process.

As Fergus Ewing announced yesterday, we have also set up a new farming and food group – with representatives from across the industry. Its role is to help shape future policy. 

While there’s no way of mitigating the damage of no deal Brexit, we are determined to provide leadership – and stability – for the industry, in every way we can. 

Of course, the threat of Brexit makes it all the more important that we address other key issues facing the sector.  I want to talk about three of those in particular – and how we’re trying to help you to address them. 

The first is the need to attract new entrants to farming. According to last year’s farm census, more than a third of farm occupiers are over the age of 64; fewer than a tenth are under the age of 41. For the future of the industry, that needs to change.

That’s why we’re making more land available for start-up farms. In the past three years, public bodies have contributed an additional 6,400 hectares of land for that purpose. 61 new farmers have benefitted.

In addition, we are also continuing to encourage more women into the industry.   

At the moment, just 14% of principal farmers and crofters in Scotland are women. 

Changing that is partly a matter of equality and fairness – but it’s also a matter of business sense. No industry can afford to neglect half of its available talent pool.

That’s why I think the prominence of women like Kate Rowell is so important. It sends a hugely positive message to women who are thinking of entering the industry. 

Kate is part of our Women in Agriculture Taskforce. Yesterday, the Scottish Government announced that – based on the work of the Taskforce – we are funding three pilot training programmes.

The programmes will provide opportunities for women to make new contacts, develop their business skills and hone their leadership abilities. Our hope is that it will encourage new entrants – and help more women to succeed in farming.

The second challenge I want to talk about is the need for the sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Scottish Government has accepted the recent advice of the Committee on Climate Change – that Scotland should aim to achieve net zero emissions by 2045. Meeting that target will obviously require major changes, across our society, and our economy. That includes farming.

Now, meat and food production will always produce some greenhouse gas emissions. But by continuing to adopt efficient practices – for example, better use of fertilisers, and improvements to livestock diet – we can reduce current levels.

That’s vital for the sustainability of the sector. It’s also in-keeping with the role that farmers and crofters have played over many years. You already do a huge amount to protect and enhance our environment – by enriching the soil, planting crops and protecting habitats.

We want to support you in that role.

That’s why – through the Scottish Rural Development Programme - we’ve helped around 1,700 farmers and crofters to undertake carbon audits. It’s also why - through schemes like Farming for a Better Climate – we’re ensuring farmers get the advice they need – to reduce emissions and regenerate the soil. 

In addition, we have appointed four young farmers and crofters as Climate Change Champions.  Kirsty, Lynn, Sandra and Bryce are here today. Our hope is that the Climate Champions will help to encourage all farmers – and especially new entrants – to play their part.

Bryce is actually the tenant at Mossgiel. Mossgiel is a family-run, organic dairy farm. In recent years, it has changed its feeding source, improved its grasslands and eliminated single-use plastics. It was in recognition of these sustainable practices that the farm – last week – won a BBC Food and Farming Award. 

And of course Bryce is just one example. That sort of leadership is being demonstrated by farmers in every part of this country. 

You don’t always get the recognition for that which you deserve. That’s why I welcome QMS’s Meat with Integrity campaign. It will help to highlight the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

However, the scale of the climate crisis will require us to step up the efforts which have already been made. We need to see all our farmers and crofters embracing sustainable, efficient practices.

I know you will continue to meet that challenge. Farmers have for generations been custodians of the land. You now have a vital role to play in the fight against climate change.

The final issue I want to talk about is importance of increasing demand for your produce. 

Kate mentioned our support for Quality Meat Scotland’s lamb campaign. I announced that at last year’s Turiff Show. The aim was to promote the excellence of Scotch Lamb – among chefs, butchers and the public.

During the 12 weeks it ran, we saw a 27% increase in spend on Scottish lamb, per buyer. We’re providing a further £200,000 for this year’s campaign, which we hope will have an even greater impact. 

Kate also mentioned our support for the Specially Selected Pork campaign, which ran in the spring. It’s had similar positive results – in raising awareness of the quality of Scottish pork.

All of this – of course – fits in with our aim of making Scotland a Good Food Nation. We want to encourage more and more people in Scotland to consume – and feel the benefit of – the top quality food that this country produces.

Alongside that, we also want to promote Scottish food and drink overseas.

Since Scotland’s Food And Drink Export Growth Plan was published – in 2014 – export sales have risen by over 20% - to a record £6.3 billion. The second phase of the plan was launched last month. It will be supported by £4.5 million of joint funding from the Scottish Government, industry and Scottish Development International.  

The money will be used to promote Scottish products in new and existing markets – and to support our ‘in-market specialists’ – who advise and identify opportunities for business. 

That should contribute to the food and drink industry’s goal of doubling its turnover by 2030.  And we hope it will lead more and more people – from around the world – to discover the quality of Scottish food and drink.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards. I was there to present the posthumous Outstanding Contribution award to Andrew Fairlie – who died earlier this year. Andrew was one of the outstanding chefs of his generation. He was also a passionate advocate for Scottish produce.

At the awards, they played a video of Andrew, talking about that. Andrew said:

I think the reason Scottish food and drink is so special is the purity of the country- we have the perfect climate… and we’ve got generations of fantastic animal husbandry – the waters around Scotland are as pure as they can be. The combination of all of these make the quality of Scottish produce unmatched – as I’ve seen – anywhere in the world. 

The excellence that Andrew spoke of is recognised the world over. I see that when I travel overseas. Scottish meat – and Scottish produce – is renowned for its quality.

That is testament to the farmers, crofters and all of those working in our meat – and our farming sector. You make a huge contribution to the prosperity, the environment and the reputation of this country. My pledge to you is that we will continue to do everything within our power to protect your interests.  And we will work with – and support you – to ensure the sector’s long term success.

So thank you for being here. I hope you enjoy the rest of the Royal Highland Show.  And I look forward to working with you – to strengthen Scottish agriculture – in the months and years ahead.



Central enquiry unit:

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