NFUS Autumn Conference 2021 – Cabinet Secretary Speech

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon speech at NFUS Autumn Conference 2021 on 28 October 2021.

Martin, thank you for that warm welcome and for inviting me to address your members at the Annual General Meeting of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland. 

I wonder sometimes if by always using your everyday title – NFUS or NFU Scotland – that we lose sight of the importance of your organisation and its value to our rural and indeed, national economy.

You are the national body representing farmers and crofters from every part of the country, representing all types and sectors of farming, of businesses and enterprises big, small and everything in between.

Looking around this room – and what a pleasure it is to be doing exactly that, I recognise many faces.

I’ve visited a lot of farms and crofts since becoming Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands 5 months ago.

These have been all across the country from our islands Shetland and Islay, to the Highlands and of course my own constituency as well as most recently the Borders where I visited Neil Whyte at his arable farm as well as Chris and Denise Walton at Peelham in Berwickshire. Martin you kindly hosted me in beautiful Highland Perthshire.

I visited a lot as the Rural Affairs Minister in the last government and I am keen to visit lots more because not only is it is the best part of my job, it’s one of the most essential. 

And the key thing I am certain of from all these visits is the importance of listening and learning. 

The more I listen to you – the experts, who have huge amounts knowledge, skills and experience to share – the more I learn.

I have seen first-hand the hugely significant role you play, day in day out, in all weathers, to produce food for this and other nations to enjoy and benefit from. 

How you care for your livestock and keep them healthy, the way you produce crops that feed them, feed us and crucially in my view, provide the foundation for our iconic whisky industry.

You have demonstrated all that you do to improve water quality on your land, and the condition of the soil; to protect the environment that creates Scotland’s unique landscape and to enhance the wildlife, the biodiversity, of the countryside

And perhaps the most important thing I am learning from you is what we need to change to give farming and food production a secure and sustainable stake in Scotland’s future – what we need to do more of, what we need to do less of, the things we need to stop. The ideas we need to adopt, the challenges we need to overcome and critically, the opportunities we need to grasp. 

So thank you for sharing all of that – and a special thank you to your President Martin Kennedy.

One of the real highlights of these first few months in office has been getting to know Martin better. 

When we set up the board to oversee implementation of agricultural reform this summer, it made absolute sense to invite Martin to co-chair the board with me. 

I know he took a risk in agreeing to accept that role and I respect him even more for that – it was a brave and bold decision.

But it was the right one. 

We don’t always agree – I’m sure you are relieved actually to hear that.  Martin wouldn’t be doing his job, and frankly, I wouldn’t be doing mine if we did. 

But perhaps even to our surprise, we are finding much more common ground than we might have expected.  What this unlikely partnership is showing us is that our goals, our priorities and our focus are aligned.

We want the same things for Scotland’s agricultural industry.

Today, I will set-out the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture.

It is a positive one, with a clear ambitious aim: 

We will transform how we support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. 

This commitment will sit at the heart of a robust and coherent framework to underpin Scotland’s future agriculture support regime from 2025 onwards.

I know many are keen to know what the future support framework will look like and what it will do.

We haven’t yet worked out the support mechanisms, but our aim is for Scotland to have a support framework that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.

We will support farmers and crofters to produce more of our own food needs sustainably and to farm and croft with nature, and we want to work with you to develop the mechanisms that will enable you to do that.

Farming, crofting and land management will continue to play an important role in maintaining thriving rural and island communities.

But we need to acknowledge that land management in Scotland will change as we tackle the twin biodiversity and climate crises.

That undoubtedly presents challenges, but also opportunities.

We will support this change to ensure farmers, crofters and local communities can capitalise on the benefits. 

There are some core fundamental objectives that we will seek to achieve with how we support you in the future.

Where practicable, we will stay aligned with new EU measures and policy developments. 

I know that might not sit comfortably with some of you politically, but I am sure it comes as no surprise to know that this SNP government wants Scotland to be independent and back in the EU in the future.

I also realise it makes some of you nervous about what that means for divergence from UK policy and UK markets.

Let me be clear – this government is wholly committed to maintaining, indeed growing, those markets and has no plans to create unhelpful barriers to trade.

But to be frank, others seem determined to create such barriers and to put you on an unlevel playing field with other food producers.

We will of course do all we can to prevent and mitigate against the impacts of such trade agreements, but we are limited with the powers and resources we currently have. 

So, staying aligned with EU policy and standards has a practical purpose too – it enables us to continue to trade with our biggest regional market, which is so crucial for our livestock producers in particular.

And let’s not forget – while we were in the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy allowed for significant divergence in how we used and applied our share of funding.

In the last CAP, Scotland was the only part of the UK to continue to provide a Less Favoured Area Support Scheme, and crucially, to provide coupled support for suckler beef and sheep farmers. 

There are clear signs that the UK Government wants to create a one size fits all approach that restricts funding to their priorities and not ours. 

The latest attempt to do so is buried in the UK subsidy control bill. It currently seeks to bring agriculture into scope, despite the fact that agriculture has its own separate subsidy control arrangements under the WTO through the Agreement on Agriculture.

And while this is complex, it is hugely significant. Because the principles that the UK Government want to apply to subsidy control in the future may constrain our ability to develop future policies that are tailored to the needs of Scottish agriculture.

Despite our requests, the UK Government has not given a clear reason as to why agriculture should be included in the new regime when it is so often deliberately excluded from standard subsidy control regimes around the world.

We could find ourselves seriously disadvantaged compared to our nearest neighbours who will continue to benefit from support, including income support, through the evolving EU CAP.

The effect could be to create yet another barrier to fair trade for our farmers and food producers and prevent us from continuing to provide support to you for producing food.

So my ask of you today is this – work alongside us, rally and lead a concerted effort across stakeholders in farming, crofting and food and drink to resist these changes which will potentially do untold harm to your industry and to food production and food security here in Scotland.

At the heart of our vision for agriculture are core values and principles which will guide and underpin the approach we take to how and what we will support farmers and crofters to do. 

Direct payments will continue, but we will also integrate conditionality of at least half of all funding for farming and crofting, so that recipients of this public investment deliver on targeted outcomes for biodiversity gain and low emissions production – basically, you will be expected to show how you farm benefits nature and cuts greenhouse gas emissions. 

Support and regulatory mechanisms will be designed to support this.

We will learn from you but also from other countries. 

We want to create a diverse, flourishing industry with more resilient, efficient and productive businesses.

And crucially, we will ensure that Scotland’s people are able to live and work sustainably on our land.

I also want to make clear what we won’t do. 

We won’t be moving anyone off the land.

We won’t be advocating the culling of any livestock to achieve emissions reduction.

We won’t be supporting the flooding of Scottish and UK markets with cheaper, lower quality imports.

We won’t be phasing out direct payments in contrast to the way the UK Government is going in England and we will resist any attempt to make us follow suit.

And we won’t be taking money out of farmers’ pockets either, though over the lifetime of this Parliament, we will expect you to do more in exchange for support and to sign up to change.

But fundamentally, at this time, everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic and Brexit.  That includes farmers and crofters, their families, employees and suppliers.

You don’t need me to tell you that costs are going up – you see it every time you try to order materials, seed, feed and fertilisers.

Supplies are also short and waiting times for delivery have gone up – with increased prices for items and delivery. 

This of course all adds pressure to your cashflow and income. 

And even though we warned that Brexit would result in tough times, I don’t think anyone anticipated the risk and challenge of a global pandemic and we did not foresee just how tough things would be.

That is why when we promised a period of stability, we meant it.

I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Fergus Ewing, for having the foresight to do this – and to withstand the criticism that attracted, including, it has to be said from the NFUS at times, for not pushing through change, particularly to the support regime, more quickly.

With so much uncertainty just now, you need reassurance more than ever that current support will continue, uninterrupted. 

Already this year, through the national loan scheme, we have made loan offers worth £343.6 million to 14,855 businesses and processed payments totalling over £326 million to 13,213 farmers and crofters. 

This means 89% of offers have been accepted and 95% of money offered, has been paid.

We started those payments at the earliest ever point, at the start of September.

And we plan to get the balance of basic and Greening payments – as well as the full payment for those who did not take up the loan offer – in early December. 

We want to get support payments to you at the earliest possible opportunity – and throughout the pandemic, RPID staff have been outstanding in working in challenging circumstances to ensure the payments process worked smoothly. 

They are already working to achieve this.

But I want to give you more assurance about payments.

For the last two years we have produced a payment strategy in order to offer certainty to the industry. Most importantly, I am delighted to say that we have been able to deliver against what we said we would do.

I commit to you today to sticking by this approach and I assure you I will do so throughout this Parliament.

I know, because you have told me, this offers much needed certainty during less than certain times. I will publish our future payment strategy at the earliest possible opportunity and I know that RPID staff will continue to work tirelessly to deliver on it.

Today, I can announce that the rate payable for basic payments will not reduce in the lifetime of this Parliament. 

And further, I can commit that we will endeavour to keep getting the bulk of those payments to you before December each year through annual national loan schemes. 

For the avoidance of doubt, these commitments will stand what ever the UK Government does to our budget for what was known as SRDP.

One of the biggest and most unhelpful shifts has been away from Scotland getting an overall envelope over seven years. 

This allowed us to determine our priorities for funding and how we phased that expenditure – CAP gave us this – now we face a single year budget allocation determined by the UK Government with no input from any of us here.

There are, of course, some sectors suffering more than others. 

The pig sector has been one of the hardest hit.  First, through the loss of the Chinese export licence due to Covid, and then by ongoing staff shortages, particularly among butchers. 

My Cabinet colleagues and I press the need to address those skills shortages to the UK Government Ministers at every opportunity.

But despite numerous requests to engage with the Home Office on these matters, we still waiting for a single response or acknowledgement of our concerns.

In the meantime, we have been working to provide some help.

We introduced a hardship scheme at the end of August – I know there was a delay in making payments but that should now be happening with payments completed by next week, and we supported QMS providing a levy holiday for payers.

This has not however, alleviated the issues around the backlog of pigs on farm which has reached a critical stage. 

The UK Government eventually moved to address the situation and announced the extension of the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme, of 800 visas for butchers specifically to work in the pork sector for 6 months. They also introduced a private storage scheme. 

Following discussions with our pig industry, I announced this morning that we will put in place our own Private Storage Aid Scheme in Scotland.  Work is moving quickly on this and I hope the scheme will be available in early November.

This will provide the industry with the assistance needed so businesses can store a large quantity of pig meat to be frozen and reintroduced to the food chain, or exported, at a later date. 

Of course, while we work hard to provide stability and certainty in the present, we must also get on and prepare for the future. 

With COP26 starting in Glasgow next week, we are all aware that the world is at a real pivot point. 

The changing climate is creating unprecedented weather events on every continent – Scotland is not immune from that.

Every day, you see the impacts of climate change on the land you farm. Wetter summers where we least expect them, later Springs, drier autumns, harsher winters too. 

The actions of us all as human beings are contributing to these changes – just as they are adversely affecting nature and our biodiversity.  We face twin emergencies in climate and nature.

That is why yesterday I announced that we will run a round of the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) in 2022 and will deliver future rounds of the fund up to and including 2024.   

As farmers, many of you are already playing your part in tackling these crises.

I freely admit that some of you are way ahead of government in terms of what you are doing:

You have conducted carbon audits and are making changes to what you do on farm to reduce your emissions;

you test the condition of your soil and have reduced your use of fertilisers as a result;

you give your livestock the best possible care and nutrition, optimising their health, productivity and welfare;

you are engaged in pilot activity around grassland management and sequestration;

you are taking up the grants available to plant trees and woodland on your farms, benefiting wildlife as well as livestock;

some of you have already shifted to organic farming – through AECS, we want to double the amount of land in organic farming;

others of you have changed entirely what and how you farm, growing more of your own animal feed on farm, changing the livestock you keep, installing biofuel and renewable energy systems.

Thank you to you all – you are our pioneers and we need you to keep leading the way.

You are seeing the opportunity as well as the challenge.  But we know there is more to be done – and more we need others to do who are still looking for support, advice and incentives  to get going.

People also need the right tools to get started.

Since establishing the implementation oversight board – or ARIOB as it is known –  in the summer, its immediate focus and priority has been to create a National Test Programme.

That programme is based on and informed by the work and recommendations of the Farmer-led Groups, particularly to ensure we are beginning to tackle the most urgent needs and creating a base upon which to build a whole-farm low carbon approach. 

I can announce today that this Programme will begin from Spring next year and over the next three years, will invest up to £51 million in supporting farmers and crofters to start our journey towards becoming global leaders in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

The Programme establishes a twin track approach. It ensures that all farmers who wish to, can either start, or continue on their journey, towards a sustainable future.

Specifically, in the first track, every farm in Scotland will be supported and encouraged to undertake baseline measures over the next few years that will start with a Carbon Audit or Nutrient Management Plan for their individual farm business.

Further options, such as Biodiversity assessments and Animal Health and Welfare plans are likely to be added to the programme as it develops. 

Cutting emissions from the suckler beef sector was a key recommendation of the Farmer Led Groups and in particular the extraordinary and sterling work led by Jim Walker and Claire Simmonetta on the beef suckler group which modelled how we might do this.

To make a start on this agenda, we will also put in place livestock data and performance systems as part of the first track to support collation of data and performance information for every beef farmer, and we will look to roll this out to other livestock sectors in the near future. 

The second track will work with a focused group of farmers and crofters from across Scottish agriculture to design and test how we will measure and reward sustainable farming practice in the future. 

One of the things that has struck me in engaging with the ARIOB members is their honesty from many who have thought they were taking good approaches to cut emissions and enhance biodiversity on their farms.

Yet, when they’ve had the chance to bring in consultants, they have seen how even with some small changes, they can make a big difference.

For me, the lesson from that is that we have all got to be open to change, to explore what might be possible, to learn from each other’s experiences, to try new things as well as take actions known to work and most importantly, to see the urgency in the need to act. 

So we are also developing a Conditionality Test programme, to involve a cross section of around 1500 farmers and crofters to learn from what is already known to work, what might work, and just as importantly, to determine what won’t work. 

We will also carry out a livestock management test to see how dedicated assistance for some suckler beef farmers can be used to improve emissions performance and build upon the livestock data.

Crucially this work will also help us best understand how and what data should and could be collected, how it should be shared and how we use it to ensure all farm businesses continue to be recognised and rewarded for the steps they can and have taken towards helping with the twin crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss we are facing.

A key aspect will be peer learning – it is well established that people learn best from those they trust and know, particularly from practical application of things they can feel confident they too can do. 

Because fundamentally, the key to change, to succeeding in doing so, is by al of us working together, listening and learning along the way.

You have played such a role in our past.

You have shown just how critical you are to our society in our present, not least in ensuring that we kept food on the supermarket shelves and on the table throughout the pandemic.

And you are vital to our future. 

We will not successfully address the twin crises of climate change and nature without you. 

Farming is not a job, it is a way of life. 

Farming is not what you do, it’s who you are.

I understand that. This government, all of Scotland’s Ministers, understand that.

You are vital to our ambition to make Scotland fairer and greener. 

We are embarking on a journey of transformation.

There will be challenges on the way, there are risks, and there will be tough decisions to be made by us all.

But there are also huge opportunities if we want to make them and take them.

We can be global leaders in sustainable agriculture – we can set the global benchmark for what regenerative agriculture actually means. 

I’m excited, but I will freely admit to being a little nervous. I am sure you are too.

But we are more likely to succeed if we make the journey together.

We will produce more of our food more sustainably, we will deliver climate mitigation and adaptation, we will restore nature and protect and enhance biodiversity.

And our success will mean we get to pass to future generations, a land, a climate and a country that works for their benefit and for the benefit of the whole planet.

That is a big ambition I know, but it is one I know our transformation journey can help to deliver.

The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland – your union – has already chosen to work with us on that journey.  I hope you will too. 

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