Securing a sustainable food supply: Cabinet Secretary speech

Opening remarks delivered to the Scottish Parliament by Rural Affairs Secretary on on Thursday 18 May 2023.

Presiding officer,

Making sure our nation has a safe and steady food supply is one of government’s key responsibilities. It is as important now as it was when Emperor Hadrian was worrying about losing access to North African grain-producing regions and of course, Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine has brought into sharp focus how vulnerable global food supply chains still are to unexpected shocks.

Key supply chains are also still recovering from the impact of the global pandemic. 

But this is a short term issue – of much greater long term concern is the completely avoidable disruption foisted upon Scotland through Brexit.

It was the Tories’ choice to pursue a hard Brexit, removing us from the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union.

As well as causing trade disruption, it has created significant workforce recruitment and retention issues for Scotland’s food and drink sector.

And of course, Labour is now also committed to Brexit and apparently thinks it can make the unworkable work – despite all the evidence showing that Brexit is making our economy poorer.

Brexit has weakened our food and drink sector in so many ways. Many exports to the EU have fallen – including a 38% fall in fruit and vegetable exports, and a 7% fall in dairy and egg exports between 2022 and 2019.

Thanks to the Tories’ hard Brexit, products like seed potatoes and chilled meats can no longer be exported to the EU at all – cutting off high-quality Scottish produce from this important market entirely, with a knock on impact in food security for those countries.

Most of all, Brexit has harmed our trading relationship with the EU, our most important trade partner and one of the world’s biggest agri-food producers.

Consequently, these shocks and challenges mean we need to focus more on food security as a nation and build resilience into Scotland’s food system as a Good Food Nation.

We need to anticipate and adapt to shocks and challenges as much as we can and develop policies to try to mitigate them and reduce their likelihood.

This was the aim of the Short-life Food Security and Supply Taskforce I set up last year in partnership with industry immediately following the invasion of Ukraine.

The Taskforce allowed us to monitor, identify and respond to disruption to food supply and its report included a series of short, medium and longer-term recommendations to mitigate impacts, resolve supply issues and strengthen food security and supply in Scotland.

These have been substantively met, and most significantly, we now have the Food Security Unit within Scottish Government up and running.

The Food Security Unit is taking forward the legacy activity of the taskforce, and will develop evidence-based monitoring for supply chain risks, including gathering and co-ordinating the best intelligence about risks and emerging issues.

After all, the supply chain is complex and every part is reliant on others, from producers to packagers to purchasers.

This monitoring and horizon-scanning will provide government and industry with better insight into global supply chain performance, to help improve responsiveness to short and longer term potential crises and challenges. 

Because there is a further long term challenge for us all to adapt to and address- climate change.

Over recent years, we have seen increased severe weather events impacting on the established rhythm of farming practice.

Climate change is already affecting our food security – that will only become more acute unless we transform our land use.

Presiding Officer, to create a more sustainable food supply for Scotland, we need to produce more of our own food more sustainably.

Scotland’s food and farming sectors have a critical role to play, producing food for consumption in Scotland and for trade through exports of food and drink, worth £8 billion a year.

Scotland’s farmers, crofters, and seafood producers produce fantastic food.

Our manufacturers, processors and distributors ensure we have high quality, sought after products prepared, packaged, and distributed to a wide range of markets and audiences.

We should not forget the amazing fortitude and resilience that our food chain showed throughout Covid-19.

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our nation's producers – that’s why we will maintain direct support for food production.

Our Vision for Agriculture has food at its heart – making clear our support for farmers and crofters in providing the country with healthy nutritious food, while also ensuring Scotland meets its world-leading climate and nature restoration outcomes.

Co-development with the sector, through forums such as the Agricultural Reform Implementation Oversight Board, will enable achievement of our shared objectives.

Protecting our natural environment and restoring biodiversity is essential to sustainable and regenerative agriculture. 

As Parliament agreed on 15 March, the Agriculture Reform Route Map shows there is no contradiction between high-quality food production and producing it in a way that delivers for climate and nature restoration.

Similarly, Scotland’s marine environment and our seafood sector play an important role in domestic food security, as well as our economic security in terms of export value, with exports of Scottish fish and seafood valued at £788 million in 2021. Indeed, Scottish salmon is the UK’s biggest food export.

Our marine environment contributes significantly to our Good Food Nation, with local seafood forming part of a healthy sustainable diet which is the ambition of the Local Food Strategy.

Our Blue Economy Vision recognises the key role that Scotland’s seas and coasts should play in contributing to the nation’s future prosperity, especially in remote coastal, rural, and island communities. 

And as pressure on land use continues, the ability to produce “blue foods” sustainably will become more important in the future. Scotland is well placed to play a leading role in that.

Yet, as highlighted by Seafood Scotland last year, Brexit continues to damage the sector’s competitiveness, with a knock-on impact to the economy of our coastal, and island communities.

And however much the Opposition try, we cannot escape the fact that Scotland remains vulnerable to the impacts of policies, omissions and poor decision making by Westminster– whoever is in power there.

Energy is one such reserved issue, and we have called for energy price setting in the gas and electricity markets, as well as the powers and resources needed to tackle rising costs on the scale required - access to borrowing, welfare, VAT on fuel and energy bills, taxation of windfall profits, and regulation of the energy market.

We remain very concerned that the UK Government’s Energy Bills Discount Scheme for businesses represents a significant reduction in funding for organisations already struggling with their energy costs.

We also need Westminster to act on migration – or better still, to devolve those powers to Scotland.

Migration is crucial to our future prosperity and current policy is damaging our economy and society.

The labour shortage is particularly harmful to Scotland’s soft fruit, horticulture and seasonal vegetable production.

In these sectors over 60% of seasonal workers were recruited through the Seasonal Workers Scheme in 2022, and producers experienced a 50% fall in the return of EU settled or pre-settled status workers in 2022 compared to 2021.

Presiding officer, I have written repeatedly to UK ministerial counterparts to highlight these challenges for Scotland’s food supply.

I have yet to see meaningful engagement – and judging by Suella Braverman’s speech earlier this week, it is hard to see how or when that might happen.

We contacted the UK Government about our proposals for a rural migration pilot last year, an initiative welcomed by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, but we have still not received a response.

But I am ever the optimist. And I acknowledge the commitments made by the Prime Minister in the Farm to Fork Summit he hosted at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. 

It would have been nice to be invited, given the focus on matters of devolved competence. But I welcome his focus, not least on standards and trade priorities.

We want the UK Government to secure coherent trade deals that are nuanced, protect vital, yet sensitive, agricultural producers and deliver in line with our Vision for Trade.

But of course, we need the rhetoric put into practice to avoid what former DEFRA Secretary George Eustice MP admitted that "We did not actually need to give Australia nor New Zealand full liberalisation of beef and sheep. It was not in our economic interests to do so."

It is therefore essential that the UK Government develops a coherent UK Trade Strategy which directly addresses the link between trade, protecting domestic food production and food security.

And I do hope that the constructive approach set out by the Prime Minister on Tuesday translates into positive action and of course, hard cash. 

Because funding to support food production now comes from Westminster – and since Brexit, the Tories have cut that, and shown no willingness to agree a multi-annual funding framework, as we had when in the EU.

And I am afraid that however much the Opposition try to ignore the elephant in the room, securing a sustainable food supply for Scotland will always be more challenging outside the EU than in it.

This is a complex issue.  We are part of a complex food system and we must balance very different considerations to meet short term shocks and long term challenges – not least the climate and nature crises.

Recent challenges demonstrate the need for nuance, for government to work with sectors and industry, to create the right environment in its widest sense to support our food supply. 

We need a healthy natural environment, a highly skilled, motivated workforce and to be able to support farmers, crofters and land managers effectively.

We need opportunities to create prosperity through profitable trade deals, and more affordable and accessible ways for people to access high quality food here at home.

We need technology, innovation and efficient distribution  – haulage is a vital part of the supply chain, and I am acutely aware of how important that sector is to our aim of a sustainable food supply for Scotland.

So, across the Scottish Government, Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers will do all they can to achieve this.

But it will be with one hand tied behind our backs. Because only with independence, will we have all the powers and levers we need to focus on the needs and interests of our population.

And crucially, independence will allow us to undo the damage of Brexit, to remove the uncertainty and insecurity it creates for our food producers, our manufacturers and our people. 

Because Brexit demonstrates clearly that re-joining the EU at the earliest opportunity, as an independent country, represents the best future for Scotland, particularly for food security.

Presiding officer, I move the motion in my name.

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