In late 2020, the Scottish Government set up a Programme Board consisting of farmers and industry experts to help design and implement a support scheme for the beef sector based on the recommendations of the Suckler Beef Climate Group. Such a scheme was to be aimed at rewarding active farmers and crofters for producing food in an efficient and environmentally and climate friendly manner.
The willingness and desire by Scottish Government to not only cooperate and collaborate with the industry but to actively seek the input and advice from those working within the farming sector was welcome and indeed refreshing.
Our Programme Board worked extremely hard to design a support model that included the necessary tools to make sure the Scottish beef sector can deliver on legally binding climate change targets whilst offering the flexibility needed by an industry as diverse as ours.
At the same time other farmer-led groups (FLGs) across all sectors were compiling similar reports to take the whole industry forward together. It became blindingly obvious that one system covering all sectors of agriculture was the way to move the whole climate change agenda forward in Scotland. This remains the case and the FLG initiative has attracted widespread farmer and wider industry support.
Our intention is to work with the government to develop a new support system to be set up and implemented in stages. This would allow farmers and crofters to transition from our current CAP arrangements to this new support framework over the course of several years, a so-called ‘Just Transition’. This would mean that we farmers and crofters have time to adjust our production systems and address environmental and biodiversity challenges at the same time.
Our proposal was that the new support system was going to be introduced with a scheme that was initially intended to be aimed at suckler beef producers given that this sector is currently calculated to have the largest share of Scottish agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and had reported its recommendations first. We based our work on a set of practical recommendations that were prepared during a review carried out by the Suckler Beef Climate Group last year. This first step was to be followed immediately by a wider scheme open to all sectors of Scottish agriculture once the recommendations by the FLGs representing the arable/horticulture, dairy, pig, and hill, upland and crofting sectors had been submitted to the government.
By March this year, after working to an extremely tight timescale, all FLGs reported back to Scottish Government with their initial findings, and the Programme Board presented its proposals for the phasing in of a new support framework which had been designed jointly with Scottish Government. The FLG reports contained a significant degree of commonality in approach, thus demonstrating a real opportunity for buy-in from the whole industry if taken forward.
Unfortunately the process was interrupted by the Scottish parliamentary elections. Since then, no further announcements or firm commitments have been made, despite the fact that the Scottish Government has declared a climate emergency and committed to trying to halt a looming biodiversity collapse through the implementation of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.
Meanwhile, farmers and crofters remain extremely concerned about climate change, biodiversity loss and many other environmental issues, not just because we have to deal with the subtle but profound changes every day of our lives, but because the environment matters to all of us. We continue to produce food, manage the countryside, and plan ahead to try and keep our businesses as resilient as possible in the face of many economic and political challenges.
Farmers understand that agriculture will continue to be primarily concerned about the production of food. We are acutely aware of our responsibilities to help manage ecosystems, protect and restore our natural environment, and, importantly, reduce our impact on the climate. Others must understand that to allow this to happen, farmers must be able to run profitable businesses.
As society’s demands and concerns have changed, we as an industry have embraced new techniques and technologies wherever we have been able to do so within our knowledge and resources, and we have changed the way in which we produce food to meet these demands. We have shown time and again that we are capable of change and what we can achieve when we are asked and empowered to contribute.
Further, time and again farming businesses have demonstrated that when we are given a sensible framework to operate within, we are best placed to be able to deliver the additional requirements and benefits that society asks for and in such a way that delivers real value for public money. It is no different this time. We can lead but we need government to play its part in terms of the direction and support we receive, and not just financial support.
We cannot wait for the perfect solution when the science is not yet in a position to demonstrate what that perfect solution might look like. There is frustration in our industry that other administrations in the UK do not appear to be waiting when Scotland should be at the forefront of setting the direction of travel. From a moral if not also social and economic point of view we most certainly cannot reduce our national herd whilst at the same time off-shoring our food production in an attempt to try and cut our emissions on paper – climate change is a global problem after all.
As an industry we must adopt techniques and ideas that we know work both from an efficiency perspective on farms and reduce productive farming’s impact on our environment. The tools that can help us to start delivering this are already in the tool box and have already been proven to work at a scientific level and been demonstrated by innovative farmers. More tools will be discovered, developed and introduced as time goes on to help meet these challenges.
Scotland has a unique opportunity to be a leader on the world stage by enabling its farming industry to achieve the necessary environmental outcomes. We are the only country where the government has engaged FLGs so that the recommendations and findings from those who work the land and manage our countryside can be used to deliver the right support framework. We are the only country in the world that has put in place an industry-led initiative to tackle environmental challenges that affect us all. No other food producing nation in the world has successfully managed to do this on a national scale.
It would be unforgivable if we were to miss this tremendous opportunity. Scotland has declared the most ambitious climate change targets on the planet, but this becomes meaningless if the delivery of those targets lacks ambition. The industry has shown its ambition and enthusiasm through the reports that have been submitted by the FLGs. The industry has shown that it is willing and has the tools to drive change.
It is absolutely crucial for government to continue a close level of engagement with the industry so that this enthusiasm does not wane. Following the work of the FLGs, a vision is starting to develop and many farmers are supportive of what looks like a direction of policy that could genuinely work. There is also broad support from environmental bodies and across the political spectrum. Strong leadership is now needed within Scottish Government to harness this enthusiasm and galvanise it into a common vision for all of Scottish agriculture.
We remain committed to helping government to design and implement a support framework that is fit for purpose. Most of all, we remain committed to ensuring that the new support structure is what our industry needs to deliver crucial environmental benefits whilst producing high quality and nutritious food from profitable farming businesses.
The climate cannot wait. Our ecosystems cannot wait.
Farmers should not have to wait for policy to catch up with the momentum that we have generated, and as a society we simply do not have time to wait.
Signed by the external members of the Suckler Beef Climate Scheme Programme Board
Jim Walker (co-chair)
Robin Barron and Robert Sheasby on Behalf of AIC Scotland as below.
Neil Wilson on behalf of IAAS
The FLG Chairs. Martin Kennedy
David Barron and the board of SBA