Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Parliament Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s call for views on the Agricultural and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill. With changes to support mechanisms wrought by Brexit and mounting pressure to mitigate the joint climate-nature crisis, the sector finds itself at a significant turning point. It is therefore critical that Scotland adopts a holistic, evidence-based, and stakeholder-informed approach to agriculture that delivers multiple benefits and promotes ecological and community resilience. This response represents contributions made by Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh spanning fields such as agriculture, land use, geography, biodiversity, economic development, the life sciences, and environmental management.

SUMMARY

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) supports the policy drive towards more multifaceted use of agricultural land. This is essential if the role of farmers is to be enhanced in the delivery of public goods and services, such as biodiversity gain and climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, the bill does not give sufficient detail on how these high-level objectives are going to be achieved, including the changes in the way agricultural activity is funded to meet them. This is essential to pave the way for the necessary changes. With the phasing out of the common agricultural policy (CAP), farmers will require rapid clarity on the regime that will replace it to allow them to plan ahead confidently and ensure the survival of their businesses. The potential skewing of support towards the higher tiers of the new system will not help this transition.

Agriculture is by far Scotland’s most dominant land use and therefore has a disproportionately strong influence on the delivery of climate and environmental policy, such as the strategic framework for biodiversity (and related delivery plan) as well as the proposed provisions in the upcoming Natural Environment Bill. These links need to be made much more explicit, with a clear understanding of how the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill contributes to their delivery. Although biodiversity and environmental protection are cross-cutting issues, policy development is unfortunately still taking place in silos.

The RSE is disappointed by the lack of recognition of the need for change in agriculture. In particular, there is a clear need for more support for farmers to achieve the policy goals and especially the switch from the production-orientated approach to one delivering a wide variety of public goods and services, of which food is a vitally important component. More focus is needed in the bill to give recognition of the stewardship role expected of farmers. In this context, there is surprisingly no reference in the draft bill or in the explanatory memorandum of the implementation of the Scottish land rights and responsibilities statement of principles. This may well belong in the code of practice on sustainable and regenerative agriculture, but the central role of the principles in improving stewardship of the land needs to be included on the face of the bill. Ensuring that the principles are implemented will require fulfilment of key changes in approach. This can only be achieved if the principles are:

  • applicable to all owners, tenants, and managers as stewards of land;
  • that no public money is provided unless potential recipients adhere to the principles;
  • that contracts for delivery are used over the longer term; and,
  • that the responsibilities are strictly monitored and enforced.

Developing further the multifaceted advisory service and ensuring clear linkages between research findings and farming practice are both essential for the future. The RSE hopes that amendments to the bill can be made to recognise these necessary changes.

The RSE recognises that the agricultural community is facing very considerable challenges to cope with rising prices of inputs, difficulty in obtaining farm gate prices that will achieve viable businesses, and very complex grant structures. We consider the use of whole farm plans, dismissed in the Scottish Government’s review of the earlier consultation, to be essential as the farm is the most logical business unit. The support mechanism should strike the right balance between centralised oversight and local flexibility, with a simple and accessible delivery infrastructure. Collaboration and co-operation between farms in an area should also be encouraged and rewarded where appropriate to ensure climate change adaptation and other environmental objectives can be achieved at the necessary scales. Working together through developing river catchment management plans and processing of food products are ways forward for example.

We are also concerned that the four-tier structure will be overcomplicated for delivering the multiple objectives set out in the bill. Whilst we recognise that the Scottish Government wishes to retain an approach which delivers the same outcomes as the EU’s CAP, we remain concerned that the funding balance between the tiers will not achieve the integrated approach to the multiple objectives sought. This cannot be left to administrative decisions once the bill becomes law and amendments are needed to secure a more balanced funding scheme to meet all of the government’s objectives.

The RSE is surprised that more recognition is not given to the diversity of farming types around Scotland. Alongside this is the need to recognise the very considerable changes in the use of land that are currently occurring and are highly likely to continue to satisfy other government policies, most especially afforestation and renewable electricity generation. The lack of any mention or use of regional land use strategies is surprising. We hope that amendments can be made to recognise the use of this tool as an important mechanism in adjudicating on land use change and in involving the rural community in these important discussions that affect their livelihoods.

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