Royal Highland Show: Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands Secretary's speech - 22 June 2023

Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands Secretary Mairi Gougeon addressed farmers and crofters at the Quality Meat Scotland Breakfast on Thursday 22 June 2023. 

Good morning everyone and thank you Kate for that introduction.

I’m so delighted to be here today, especially as I missed the 200th anniversary of the show last year due to Covid, so  this is my first full Highland Show as  Cabinet Secretary, and I’m really looking forward to the next couple of days.  I couldn’t have asked for a better start than seeing everyone here this morning. 

The last few years have not been easy for the Scottish agricultural industry, not least as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Tomorrow will also mark seven years to the day for the vote of the EU referendum. Brexit wasn’t what Scotland voted for – and contrary to popular belief, farmers here largely didn’t vote for it either.

Brexit of course, is still happening – there is more disruption potentially to come when import controls are finally introduced. We all warned of what it might mean, but I don’t think any of us were truly prepared for the short term harms it has created.    

In response to these shocks, we provided additional funding for the Scotland Food & Drink Recovery Plan. That plan has helped deliver support for many to recover, adapt to their new reality of life outside the EU, and re-introduced us all to the idea and importance of food security.

The war in Ukraine sent shockwaves through the whole global food system and at the suggestion of industry, we established  the short life food security and supply task force.  This time last year, we announced the recommendations from the task force report, one of which was a commitment to establish a new food security unit within the Scottish government.

That Unit has now been set up and established within and will take forward the legacy activity of the taskforce, and is currently developing evidence-based monitoring for supply chain risks.  

We cannot predict all the challenges that may arise, but monitoring and horizon-scanning will help, providing better long-term insight into global supply chain performance, so improving how we might respond to potential future crises. 

While immediate supplies of food and animal feed might be secure, costs are not. Unlike EU member states, inflation in the UK is still running higher, interest rates are higher, labour costs are higher than they were. 

In response to the cost crisis, to provide increased financial security for farmers and crofters, I legislated last year to allow the start date of the Basic Payment Scheme and Greening payments to be made in September.  

Things have not really eased this year. Many agricultural businesses continue to deal with financial challenges and uncertainty.  As a result, in February I published the 2023 Payment Strategy timetable to provide early certainty over when payments will start to arrive this year.

And I can confirm that our 2023 payment strategy will seek to match the 2022 payment timings. That means basic and Greening payments starting to arrive from September for the second year in a row.

While Brexit clearly has a lot to answer for, the truth is that it has exposed the UK as a failing economic model.  It is one strong reason why I believe – this government believes – Scotland should have the right to choose a different future, one within the EU.

But even the EU is having to prioritise food security.

The war in Ukraine remains a key current threat, but the climate emergency – not least our current weather patterns resulting in widespread water scarcity right now - is showing us all that strengthening food security and supply chain resilience must be a priority for every nation.

We need to continue to work together to meet these challenges. And that is what I am doing as your Cabinet Secretary. Our engagement with and support for Scotland’s farming and food and drink sectors will continue to be close, meaningful and purposeful for as long as this government is in power.

We’re all too aware of the problems that Scotland’s pig industry has faced recently - last year was especially tough.  

Thankfully things have improved this year, with pig prices up, alongside a drop in feed prices.

 And I’m excited to be able to announce more good news today that the owners of Brechin Abattoir, the Browns Food Group have agreed a contract with Aldi, to supply Special Selected Pork into their Scottish Stores, starting in October this year.

This news shows why we need to maintain and renew our focus on local Scottish provenance and supporting companies like Browns to keep making high quality, local produce for everyone in Scotland to be able to afford, access and enjoy.  

That’s what being a Good Food Nation means. It is good for our producers, for our processors, and most of all our people.

We can be proud of the economic contribution our red meat sector makes, with an annual output of around £885 million  from the farm gate, to processors and manufacturers, butchers and retailers, all working tirelessly to provide our people with the healthy, high quality Scotch beef, Scotch Lamb and of course our Specially Selected Pork.

But we also want more people elsewhere in the UK and in other countries to enjoy our red meat. Exports matter too, and I was pleased to witness this first hand when I attended the SIAL trade show last year.

And I can confirm today that I intend to go to Anuga this year to offer my support to all our exporters to help secure more valuable business for Scotland.

That ground work is all the more important now we are outside one of the world’s most successful and lucrative markets.

Especially when Westminster’s track record on third country trade agreements is not great so far.  

Throughout the negotiation of the UK-Australia and New Zealand Trade Deals, we repeatedly made clear that Future Trade Agreements must be negotiated in a way that balances market access with protection of domestic producers.

How galling then to discover through media reports that anything we had to say was ignored by the then Prime Minister trying to ingratiate himself with his Australian counterpart over a dinner where the fine details of that deal were finalised.

Thankfully, the current Prime Minister has signalled a different approach with his announcement of a set of principles.  I welcome this.  It is a positive development, but of course, the proof will be in what is negotiated in future deals for Scottish producers. 

Meanwhile, the EU, by contrast, has secured more protective terms for their domestic agricultural producers in their recent trade deal with New Zealand.

Brexit has harmed our trading relationship with the EU, It has also created significant workforce recruitment and retention issues for Scotland’s food and drink sector –including particularly in butchery skills.

We also continue to be short changed on rural funding. We were promised at least CAP levels of funding before the EU referendum – that never transpired.

But I’m working hard to seek a different approach for post 2025, with a multi-year funding settlement that respects the devolution settlement and fully replaces EU funds.

But even with no clarity whatsoever about future funding from Westminster, we need to get on and design and deliver a replacement rural support scheme for Scotland.

Last year, I published a Vision for Scottish agriculture that seeks to transform support for farming and food production, and make Scotland a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

Many of you will know – some of you are involved – that we are co-designing a support framework that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration, while ensuring a just transition with no cliff edges to support.

To all the pioneers who have been leading the way on this agenda for years – thank you.  To those of you who have got on board – over a thousand who have taken up the support for carbon audits this year alone – thank you. To everyone contributing their time, effort, experience and knowledge – thank you.

That includes all who took part on the consultation last year on our proposals for a future Agriculture bill.  The consultation set out what a new rural support framework might look like from 2025-26 and I can advise that we have now published the government’s response to the Agriculture Bill consultation.

In February of this year, I also published a route map on how and when current schemes will change, including key dates and where to find guidance and support.

I can announce that an updated version of the route map has been published today.

It contains much more information on what will change from 2025.  It makes clear that our transition will be a Just one.

Some things won’t change before a new framework for support is implemented beyond 2026.

But be clear. Change is coming.  Now is the time to get ready. 

From 2025, a new condition will be introduced to basic payments.  We will expect people to start implementing the principles of the EU GAEC for peatlands and wetlands so that everyone is playing their part in helping to restore 250,000 hectares of degraded peatlands by 2030 and sequester more carbon in these vital habitats.

Existing cross compliance conditions will also be maintained as a minimum in the new support framework and will apply across all four tiers of support. 

The foundations of the Whole Farm Plan will go live in 2025.  which  are ‘productivity baselines’: soil testing, animal health and welfare declaration, carbon audits, biodiversity audits, and the support for effective business planning.

To help farmers and crofters “prepare for Sustainable Farming”, support will be available –

Financial support is available for land managers (arable land & improved grassland) to claim support towards the cost of soil analysis

Businesses can claim £500 towards having a Carbon Audit performed

Cattle keepers will be able to access data through MyHerdStats to provide consistent and accurate insight into herd performance.

And up to a maximum of £1,250 is available over two years to deliver animal health and welfare measures with access to herd data for cattle keepers

It’s important not to forget why we are doing all this. 

To help our agricultural industry cut emissions. To farm using different low carbon approaches. To farm and croft for nature.

And crucially, to meet more of our food needs sustainably.

Let me be clear. Scotland is one of the best countries in the world in which to produce high quality, healthy red meat.

I want that to stay and for our reputation to grow.

In the future, we will still produce red meat.  We will still be a land where there are dairy cows, sheep, pigs and yes, chickens. 

But it is our beef industry which is the real powerhouse of our agricultural economy.

That is why it is so critical to cut emissions from this sector.

So from 2025, new conditions will be introduced to suckler beef support scheme linked to calving intervals to encourage livestock keepers to reduce the emissions intensity of their cattle production systems. We will work with the beef sector, including the SBA, QMS and others, on detailed proposals and how they will be implemented.

And those conditions will also help farmers to produce beef more efficiently – making business sense as well as carbon sense.

These changes will only work if as many farmers and crofters as possible take part.

So alongside the route map, from today we are embarking on an engagement programme for change.

There are leaflets, videos and case studies available – from today - to explain the changes ahead and the support available to help farmers and crofters get ready.

Starting right here at the Royal Highland Show, we will be offering drop-in sessions at agricultural shows through the summer, auction marts in the autumn and in area RPID offices across Scotland, to share information and answer questions on what the changes are, what they mean, and what businesses can do to prepare.

Knowledge is key to transforming our industry.  So is innovation.  And ensuring people have the right skills at the right time.

Under Tier 4 of the new rural support framework, we will be providing a new Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System, or AKIS for short.

Today, we are publishing a research report, undertaken by the James Hutton Institute through ClimateXChange, on options to deliver this new system.

The next step is to consider those options and until early 2024, we will seek to gather views to help determine what works for farmers and crofters and what the system will look like.

Of course the best way to support people’s skills and knowledge is to enable them to learn from each other - farmer to farmer. This time last year I announced funding for the next Monitor Farm Programme, which is now fully underway and will continue until 2026.

The nine farms involved, range from the Inner Hebrides to the North East coast of Scotland and are showing that by working together, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, participants can observe changes being made on farm and track the progress in real time, aiming to help improve the resilience and sustainability of their businesses.

QMS is critical to the ongoing success of the Monitor Farm Project, and like us, our national red meat levy body is facing change with confidence and creativity.

I know that tomorrow morning you will hear more on what QMS are looking to do into the future, with the launch of their new vision. It is one that government shares and I will be keen to support its delivery.  

So in closing, let me just reiterate that change is coming.  But thankfully, not before we all enjoy yet another first class Show breakfast courtesy of QMS.

Thank you QMS for inviting me this morning.

And thank you to each and every one of you – for what you do and the key role you all play in putting food on our plates, pounds in the industry’s pockets, and playing your part in ensuring that the landscape and environment that you all know and care for so well will be here for generations of Scots still to come.  

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