Royal Highland Show 2024: First Minister's speech

First Minister John Swinney's keynote speech at the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Breakfast event at the Royal Highland Show 2024.

Good morning everyone,

It’s an enormous pleasure to be here this morning, and to be here as First Minister of Scotland, and to join Mairi in expressing my enormous congratulations to Sarah on the prestigious award that she has achieved.

I’m very pleased to be here and to be joined by the team that supports me on the work that we take forward to support agriculture within Scotland.

As well as being the First Minister, I am the longest serving parliamentarian in Scotland. I have represented the communities of Perthshire and Angus previously for 27 years.

Every one of those 27 years of listening to, engaging with, understanding, sympathising with, representing and taking forward the issues and perspectives of rural Scotland, and the communities I have had the privilege of representing for more than a quarter of a century, have come with me into Bute House as First Minister of Scotland.

The concerns and considerations that I know will be in your minds, which many of you have put to me over these many years, are concerns and considerations that are very much in my head and my heart as I take forward my responsibilities as First Minister.

Be assured that I know and understand the challenges that exist in rural Scotland, and that I will lead a Government that will listen with care to the challenges and issues that are faced by the agriculture sector and the rural communities of Scotland.

In that respect, I’m enormously well supported by Mairi Gougeon, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, and also by Jim Fairlie, the Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity, both of whom have demonstrated their commitment to the rural economy in Scotland, and to understanding the challenges that are faced as we try to navigate our way through what are turbulent times and challenging conditions in almost every walk of life.

Mairi, with her extensive experience as a Cabinet Secretary, and Jim, with his combination of experience as a Minister, as a representative of the neighbouring communities that I represent in Perthshire, but also his deep association with the agricultural sector within Scotland.

I am very confident that I have a team of Ministers around me that can support me, along with the Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes, in understanding and appreciating the challenges that exist in rural Scotland. I make it clear today our determination to ensure that we address those issues and that we work collaboratively with the agricultural community of Scotland to build the best future we possibly can.

A lot of opportunities have been talked about in the course of the contributions this morning. I was delighted to see when I was in Munich last week that Brownings the Bakers, of Ayrshire, had seized the moment and designed a ‘Tartan Army Pie’.  It was a formidable combination of mince and tatties wrapped in pastry, which sounded to me like the closest thing to perfection you could ever find in the world.

I’m glad that every opportunity has been sought by representatives of the agricultural industry and the food production sector in Scotland.

I was also delighted, when I was in Munich, to meet a young man called Craig Ferguson, who walked from Glasgow to Munich for the opening match of the Euros. He decided to do this walk to raise money for the male suicide prevention charity, Brothers In Arms.

He set an initial funding target of £10,000, and the last I saw of it he was well in excess of £50,000.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking to some of the other stallholders as I came round the showground this morning who are providing valuable support to assist the mental wellbeing of those involved in agriculture.

Jim has done formidable work with RSABI on this question in the course of the past few weeks. It is such an important topic and important commitment that we acknowledge the importance of supporting individuals working in agriculture who may face challenges with their mental wellbeing.

I take this opportunity to offer the government’s support for that important work, but also to take this very public opportunity to thank Craig Ferguson, a young man who just decided to do something big and bold, and he has made a difference because of that. Thank you, Craig, for what you have done, for this significant effort. 

This morning I would like to thank QMS and everyone here for the fantastic work that you do for Scotland’s red meat sector.

The Scottish Government supports Scotland’s livestock industry. We support you now, and we will continue to support you in the future.

We have demonstrated this by continuing with Voluntary Coupled Support, and committing to this until at least 2028, because we know how important this certainty is to our farmers and crofters.

Whether you are a farmer, butcher, land manager, or in agri-business; whether you are supporting our renowned Scotch beef, Scotch lamb or Specially Selected Pork; you play a fundamental role in creating the excellent and iconic meats that contribute to Scotland’s brand and reputation across the world.

And you are, of course, part of a wider system and supply chain. It is, and must continue to be, a Team Scotland approach in the promotion of the meat sector in Scotland and in working with all of those who make that possible.

Let me make it absolutely clear today that the government commits itself to work with industry in a partnership to attract a skilled workforce, to improve productivity, to reduce our carbon emissions and to market ourselves globally, and crucially to ensure there is a sustainable future for agriculture and the food production sector in Scotland.  

The red meat sector is, and always will be, an important contributor to the Scottish economy, as well as a key piece of our national identity.

Scotland is one of the best countries in the world in which to produce healthy, high quality red meat sustainably.

That is, of course, due to the care, innovation and resilience you bring to this sector.

I know from my own constituency work how challenging recent years have been. It has been a tough environment, but we have great opportunities to strengthen the contribution of the red meat sector to the Scottish economy and to ensure that the quality upon which this sector is founded will be a significant basis for realising the opportunities that will come in the years ahead.

Given how challenging the period has been for farmers and crofters and other participants in the economy, I would like to confirm that the 2024 Payment strategy will maintain the payment timings of last year, and BPS and greening payments will be in bank accounts from September. I hope that provides important clarity for the industry.

The agriculture reform route map delivers on one of our key pledges: that there will be no cliff edges in support for the farmers and crofters in Scotland. And it provides transparency on the timeframes moving forward.

The route map provides Scotland’s farming and food production industry with clarity and confidence on key dates; expectations; the various measures being proposed, and the support that will be available to prepare for the implementation of the necessary changes to the way we operate.

We will ensure that timeframe is updated regularly to provide the most current information. As things change, Ministers will ensure that farmers and crofters are informed as early as possible.

To ensure our agriculture sector has the most successful and sustainable future possible, the Scottish Government is committed to supporting Scottish farming and food production. So that our ambition, to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, becomes yet another attractive aspect of Scotland’s brand identity.

This commitment will underpin our future agriculture support regime from 2025 onwards. We’ll deliver a support framework to produce high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.

So, we’ll be supporting and working with farmers to meet our food needs sustainably and in line with environmental commitments, as an investment in the future of the sector.

I stress, in taking forward that work, the importance of this being done in partnership. We have to do this in a way that takes the industry with us on a journey towards net zero, in a spirit of partnership.

That has underpinned the work the Cabinet Secretary has taken forward on co-developing the Code of Practice on Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture, as part of the Agriculture & Rural Communities Bill process, because identifying best practice for sustainable and regenerative agriculture is vital to the sector’s future.

An early draft has already been shared and discussed with stakeholder groups, who have provided feedback, and we’ll be speaking to the famers and crofters who will use the code in their work over the next few months. 

The Code aims to be informative on sustainable and regenerative practices, so that excellent food can be produced in a sustainable way – farming with nature to improve the climate, biodiversity, and farm profitability.

As we promised to the industry last year, any changes here will be gradual, with no cliff edges along the way. I reiterate that commitment today. That will underpin the approach the Government takes as we transition to the new support framework.

These changes will be made possible by the framework of the Agriculture & Rural Communities Bill, which I was pleased passed its Stage 3 proceedings in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.

Some of the changes mean doing more in return for some of the support offered. That is essentially the partnership approach and the bargain that we are striking with the industry.

The Whole Farm Plan was a recommendation from Farmer Led Groups, and since then, we have continued to work with the industry to develop something which will be beneficial to farmers and crofters.

Many of you here have helped shape what is required for 2025 and beyond, and I want to thank all stakeholders, including QMS, for contributing your time, expertise, and ideas to this process.  

The first changes of the Whole Farm Plan will come into effect in 2025.

In that year, in return for their basic payment, all farmers and crofters will need to have in place two out of five baselines.

Many farmers and crofters are leading the way and will already have many of these baselines in place, which is the importance of my point about us all undertaking a gradual process of transition to meet the challenges of net zero, and so we can all collaboratively ensure there are no cliff edges involved in the process.

For QMS members, their animal health and welfare plans will count as one of the two baselines that they need in 2025.

So, in preparation, I would encourage those of you who haven’t already to take advantage of the Preparing for Sustainable Farming initiative.

Through this mechanism, carbon audits and soil analysis are being funded and this will help you prepare for the introduction of the Whole Farm Plan in 2025.

New conditions will be added to Cross Compliance and the Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme.

The reform of the Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme is a cornerstone of our efforts to promote sustainable beef production and, in March, we confirmed the intention to continue the scheme until 2028, again avoiding the cliff edges that I know everyone fears.

There will be an emphasis in the approach to the Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme that strikes a balance between productivity, profitability and climate impact.

By incentivising shorter calving intervals, we aim to reduce the emissions intensity in cattle production systems. This reform measure represents our commitment to sustainable beef production and environmental stewardship. It’s those transition mechanisms that we all have to work on collectively and collaboratively to achieve our objectives.

I hope in the course of the approach that we take, based on the work that has been undertaken in partnership with the industry – and I’m profoundly grateful to all of the participants in the farmer-led groups and the process of dialogue that the Cabinet Secretary has led – that there is a sense that the industry is a partner in this journey that we have to make.   

Scotland is a very fortunate country. I referred at the beginning to my trip in Munich last week and the great warmth of welcome there was for Scotland and our football fans. What was also very striking to me in the surroundings of the Allianz stadium was the very great prominence that was being given to Scottish produce in the hospitality arrangements that were in place.

A superb amount of work had been done to ensure there was a prominent place for Scottish food and drink at a major sporting tournament.

That illustrates to me the strength of joining together different elements of work. This is an agriculture and food production event here today, and I want you to be assured that I view the work that you undertake as being integral to the promotion of Scotland around the world.

That is one of our greatest strengths as a country – what you do, what you produce, what you generate is fundamental to the identity of Scotland overseas.

That is a significant economic opportunity for our country, an opportunity for us to realise the true value of the inherent and indigenous strength of the industry here in Scotland.

During my visit to Munich – and this will be replicated in the various trade events that take place around the globe where we have the opportunity to work in partnership to promote Scottish produce – I was struck by the great opportunity we have to strengthen the brand identity of Scotland, based on the strength of our agricultural sector.

I wish you well for the duration of the Royal Highland Show. 

Please be assured that you have in Bute House a First Minister who understands this industry, who is committed to this industry and wants to see this industry thrive, and have a long-term sustainable future. A future that can generate new and buoyant opportunities for our country.

I look forward to working with you to make sure that’s a reality.

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