Royal Highland Show: First Minister's speech at Quality Meat Scotland Breakfast event - 24 June 2022

Speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Royal Highland Show, Ingliston, on 24 June 2022. 

After three long years - three long years which have probably for many people felt more like 13 years - I’m sure we can all agree that it is truly wonderful to be back here in person for this 200th anniversary year of the Royal Highland Show. As many of you will know, and maybe some of you don’t know this, the first Highland Shows were actually held very close to the site of the Scottish Parliament down in Holyrood. One meeting at the second show was addressed by Sir John Sinclair, the famous agricultural improver. And he said this at that meeting; “I have long wished to see meetings assembled in Scotland for promoting the improvement of our livestock. And I’m happy to see that under the auspices of the Highland Society Scotland, they have commenced with so much probability of success”.

I think it’s fair to say Sir John’s words back then were far-sighted. But I’m not sure even he would have anticipated or predicted just how successful these gatherings have become. The Royal Highland Show is very firmly established as a highlight of the summer in Scotland, or of what passes for the summer in Scotland. It is a place where the agricultural sector meet, debate and exchanges ideas. And it showcases often to audiences who might otherwise might not otherwise think very much about these things, the quality, the variety and the importance of Scottish agriculture and of the Scottish food and drink industry.

And that is directly relevant to the main point I want to make to you today. My basic message this morning is a simple one but it is also an important one given some of the challenges, the very significant challenges, that the sector is currently facing. And the message is this, the Scottish Government recognises and we hugely value the enormous role that farmers and crofters play in Scottish life. We want to work with you to help overcome the difficulties faced, but also to take advantage of the many opportunities that are out there. And that’s because we know that the success of farmers in Scotland is absolutely fundamental. It’s fundamental to our environment, it’s fundamental to our economy and it’s absolutely fundamental to the sustainability of our rural communities.

And it follows on from that that this sector is central, has got to be central, to all of our plans for recovering from the impact of the pandemic. Earlier in this year we launched the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. And that made clear that every part of Scotland without exception, including rural Scotland – perhaps especially rural Scotland – will be crucial to our recovery. It highlighted sustainable farming, food and drink and life sciences as some of the sectors where Scotland has key market opportunities for the future. And that is why when we consider options for future farm payment systems, the Scottish Government did take a different approach from our counterparts in the UK Government. We have kept basic farm payments – although with important environmental elements – because we do recognise the need to support food producers.

We’re also determined to support you to the best possible extent, the maximum possible extent, to address the significant challenges that are currently being faced especially in relation to cost increases and a need to reduce carbon emissions. Now, in my remarks today, I want to spend just a few minutes on each of these two aspects because I know how important both of them are to this sector. As we all know, indeed as Kate has just reflected on, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has contributed to a very, very significant increase in costs for people across the country in all sectors but certainly in costs for farmers. The impact of energy price rises on fertiliser production, for example, is adding to inflation in food production.

Back in March, we set up a food security and supply taskforce to advise on the problems that we knew the invasion would cause including the difficulties caused by increased costs. That taskforce reported yesterday. We have already accepted some of its key recommendations, for example the establishment of new food security structures here in Scotland.

The task force also acknowledged that the Ukraine crisis is in some cases simply exacerbating pre-existing problems and issues. 

For example Brexit and the way in which Brexit has been implemented has also contributed to cost increases, and it is causing workforce shortages in farms and in food and drink businesses. And unfortunately we know that these problems could yet get more serious. Recent reports suggest that the UK government is thinking about getting rid of all EU regulations by 2026, something that could cause additional uncertainty and indeed confusion for farmers, for crofters, and food and drink producers.

The Scottish Government is therefore pressing the UK Government, to ask it to do more to support the food and the farming sectors, in particular, making it clear that urgent changes are needed to the immigration system so that employers can hire the workers that are so desperately needed. There is no doubt now that Brexit is causing the significant harm to the economy that many of you predicted in the run up to it and there is a real duty on the government to take action to mitigate that harm as much as possible.

But as well as calling for action from the UK Government, the Scottish Government – this is a key point I want to make to you today – will also use our own powers to the maximum extent to help farmers in the challenges that are being faced.

Just as one example, we laid regulations in parliament just last week to bring forward annual farm payments. They will now be paid from mid-September onwards, rather than from mid-October. A small but significant step that I hope will help farmers with cash flow as you head into the winter.

We’ve also established a national helpline to support people who use oil-based heating systems who are facing significant hardship at this time. And we know that’s a particular issue for people in some rural communities so we are encouraging people to seek help now, rather than wait until autumn and winter.

The final point on this I want to stress is that although the invasion of Ukraine is causing challenges for farmers, that is undoubtedly the case, it has also highlighted again just how vital and important you are. Supporting a large and diverse farming sector in Scotland is a vital element in safeguarding and promoting food security.

So helping you get through these current challenges isn’t just important for farmers and for rural communities more generally, although of course it is, it is really important for the country as a whole. So that is why we will continue to work with you to take the action that we can to give that support.

Now, as we do that, of course, we can’t focus on food security and rising costs in isolation. We must address those issues at the same time as we do address the climate crisis, and as we protect our biodiversity. After all, the climate crisis and the nature crisis are in themselves major threats to our long-term food security.

Farmers in Scotland already play a hugely important role here as responsible businesses and responsible stewards of one of Scotland’s biggest assets which is our land.

As most of you know, I spent a fair amount of time at COP in Glasgow last November. Questions around land use, how to reduce emissions from agriculture, were very prominent in so many of these discussions.  But they also brought home to me just how fortunate Scotland is to have farmers, and a food and drink sector, who are already so actively involved in efforts to reduce emissions.

I know that the Farming for a Better Climate initiative is here at the show. It works with farmers to help reduce emissions while also improve profitability which is a point that we should never lose focus on. A good example of that is the integrating trees network that it runs which has supported farmers to plant trees as part of their agricultural businesses.

However, despite the good work already being done, and Farming for a Better Climate is just one example of that, I think we all know that we need to do even more in future.

And there is an inescapable moral imperative here. Scotland is a developed country with significant historic emissions so therefore we have a duty to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and then get to net zero as quickly as possible.

But tackling the climate crisis, and this is a point that I think needs to be made as often as possible, tackling the climate crisis is also in our own best interests.

Farmers are already being affected by the climate crisis and they will be affected even more in the future as severe weather incidents – storms, floods, droughts – become much more frequent. There are immediate commercial considerations, too; customers are increasingly demanding that food is sustainably sourced, and so the reputation, the fantastic reputation, of our food and drink sector, which is such an important asset to all of us, will increasingly depend on us being able to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity.

So that's one reason that I warmly welcome the ambition set out this week by the beef sector that has promised to reduce emissions by 75 per cent. I know, Kate, that you chaired the steering group for this week’s report, and I want to confirm that the Scottish Government will work with you to achieve that emissions reduction target. For example, the MyHerdStats initiative already holds data for all cattle farmers in Scotland. Further data – for example about the weights and grades of animals being sold – may well be added in the future.

We envisage that this information will provide performance indicators for farmers, which will then help them to improve profitability while also reducing emissions. We have also, for the farming sector more generally, recently established the National Test Programme. It’s helping farmers and crofters to sample soil and conduct carbon audits. And that’s such an important way of ensuring that farmers are able to think about ways of reducing emissions and farming more sustainably.

We are also continuing, importantly, to invest in the scientific research which is so vitally important to agricultural improvement. The Government currently provides significant funding to our major research institutes to explore issues such as planet and animal health and food security. I know that Mairi McAllan hosted an event for those research partners yesterday, and the Scottish Government is confirming today projects that will benefit from our next five-year funding programme. In total, we are investing almost £50 million a year – so more than £200 million in total – to support more than 150 projects. 

Many of these will cover issues crucial to the agriculture sector, such as the resilience of livestock to climate change; how to reduce climate change emissions from farming and livestock; and the way in which anti-microbial resistance and pathogens spread into the food chain, and then goes into humans. That support confirms, I hope, our determination to ensure that Scotland does continue to make an important contribution to global research on agriculture and the environment. It will help scientists here explore some of the key issues facing agriculture today, and therefore contribute, I hope, very significantly to the success and sustainability of Scotland’s farming sector. And it is an investment that is very much in keeping with the founding aims and ideals of this event.

I mentioned earlier the remarks made by John Sinclair at the second meeting of the Highland show; he also argued, in those remarks, that Highland shows would help to “excite a spirit of improvement” in farmers. Two centuries later, that spirit of improvement is undoubtedly and very visibly still present, not just in our scientific research institutes, but right throughout this Royal Highland Show. It is very apparent in the excellence of our food and drink industry, in the quality of our livestock and farm produce, and in the debates and discussions that are taking place here over these days.

So – and this will be my concluding point – despite the fact that these are undoubtedly challenging times for farmers, perhaps for some of you the most challenging times you have ever experienced, this show highlights – as it has always done – that there are also many reasons for optimism for the future. Farmers and the food and drink sector continue to have a deservedly high reputation. Your importance, I think, is more evident to all of us than it has ever been. People, and the Government, value your role as food producers, as stewards of our land, and as cornerstones of the rural economy.

Fundamentally, we recognise that principle that the Highland show has reinforced for two centuries now – that farming is not just important, it is essential and integral to the wellbeing and the prosperity of the entire nation. So let me end just by reiterating my commitment and the commitment of the Scottish Government to working with you as we navigate the challenges that lie ahead; and as we cope with rising costs; and as we work to enhance and protect our environment; and as we help farms and food producers to flourish, which is essential to the country as a whole. So I’m really delighted to have been able to join with you this morning. I’m looking forward to touring around to see what the show has to offer, and I look forward very much to working with all of you in the months and years to come. Thank you very much indeed.

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