This week I attended the ‘big rural debate’ between Fergus Ewing, Scottish Government Minister for Rural Economy and Connectivity and Michael Gove, the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Given the major political differences between the two I got the impression a lot of people attending were looking forward to watching sparks fly!
The Trust and many other conservation organisations weren’t automatically invited to this event, and we even had to ask nicely if we could come along. Given the amount of work we’ve done on proposals for rural funding after Scotland leaves the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in our Land Stewardship Policy, this was disappointing. This might sound like sour grapes but my point is that the Scottish Government must stop thinking of ‘rural Scotland’ as simply composed of farmers and foresters.
Our rural economy is every bit as vibrant as the urban economy and innovation is beginning to flourish across a range of sectors. The conservation sector is a significant employer in rural parts of Scotland and supports jobs in many other areas. Tourism is an obvious example, but conservation also helps support a wide range of enterprises, like tree nurseries, fencing contractors, graziers and stalkers.
Fundamentally, we need a vision for rural Scotland that encourages further innovation and good environmental stewardship. And to achieve this we need a major change in the way public money supports land use.
Time to change the status quo
During the debate Fergus Ewing re-asserted his belief that direct payments (money paid to farmers as income support) must continue in Scotland, and that the ‘primary purpose’ of farmers is to produce food. Essentially, he is calling for the status quo to continue in Scotland.
The problem with the current system is it rewards those who produce the largest amount of commodities, but it doesn’t help reduce the negative impacts to society – like pollution, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. The recent report on the rapid declines in the world’s insects starkly highlighted that the majority of the loss can be attributed, either directly or indirectly, to intensive agriculture.
With so many strains on the public purse it is no longer acceptable to use taxpayers’ money to pay farmers to produce only food. The market should provide returns for food production. We need public funds to pay for things that the market doesn’t provide.
This could include paying land managers to produce clean air and water, flood protection, healthy soils, attractive landscapes, places for recreation, and thriving wildlife – services often called public goods.
Helping land managers produce these services doesn’t mean they can’t produce food. It does mean they can diversify farm and forestry businesses and make sure our natural ecosystems are resilient enough to continue to provide food for generations come and cope with our changing climate. It would also make the wider rural economy more resilient.
While we by no means agree with all of it, NFU Scotland’s Steps to Change document looks more progressive than what is currently being voiced by Fergus Ewing. NFUS state that, “Viable agricultural businesses and food production need not run contrary to achieving positive environmental outcomes and public goods”. We completely agree.
We now have to see a vision from the Scottish Government that doesn’t simply perpetuate the broken systems we have under the CAP, but rather allows our farmers and land managers to achieve the best for the environment.
Scotland is in an excellent position to provide these public goods. Michael Gove’s interest in the natural capital approach actually puts Fergus Ewing in a powerful position to negotiate more funding for the rural economy in Scotland, given the richness of our natural capital stocks.
Public Affairs Manager