Agricultural transition in Scotland

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation ‘Agricultural transition in Scotland – first steps towards our national policy‘. Agriculture and land use are two areas in which the RSE has been active, having previously commented on the implications of Brexit on Scotland’s agricultural sector and on various land use policies.

Agriculture is one of Scotland’s most expansive sectors, steeped in economic, cultural, and environmental significance – indeed, about 80% of Scotland’s total land area is in agricultural production. However, it is also a sector in significant flux. Adapting to the impacts of climate change on future food production is a growing concern even as the sector attempts to reconcile carbon-intensive traditions with national net-zero targets and a need to respond to the biodiversity emergency. Managing this transformation will require an ambitious and radical policy programme with just transition principles at its heart.

By its cross-cutting nature, the agricultural sector is inextricably linked to a number of policy areas. It is important that coherence is achieved between them. Otherwise, Scotland runs the risk of undermining its own policy objectives as it seeks to fulfil unintentionally competing – rather than synergistic – outcomes. Policy coherence is a cornerstone of the National Performance Framework and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The farmer-led approach to developing the policy is an excellent start, but it would also be relevant to evaluate proposals from the perspective of the food and drink sector (a major contributor to the Scottish economy) and national commitments to encourage healthy eating, as well as wider communities of interest such as rural populations, consumers, scientists, environmental managers, and others.

More transparent links to Scotland’s Land Use Strategy and to the Principles laid out in the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement would strengthen perceptions of agriculture’s place within the Scottish Government’s holistic approach to policy.

Common across our response is the central role of farmers and landowners in developing and implementing mechanisms of change – from collecting baseline data to co-designing research. Empowering them to take ownership of agricultural transformation where appropriate will also fulfil just transition aims.