Agriculture and food: from production subsidies to balancing support for farmers’ livelihoods with promoting the green transition and food security

March 8 2024, by Professor Maggie Gill

The timing of the penultimate Scotland-Europe Initiative workshop on Food and Agriculture on 28 February 2024 was timely as it coincided with demonstrations by farmers against changes in agricultural payment schemes in a number of European countries, including in England and Wales.

The hybrid workshop, held at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, posed three questions:

  1. What lessons can Scotland learn from the challenges experienced in Europe when trying to implement the European farm to fork strategy?
  2. Given the diversity of farming systems and rural contexts in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s commitment to a just transition which key principles should be embedded in the development of the rural support plan, while avoiding over-complexity of delivery?
  3. The draft Bill on Scottish Agricultural payments refers to the production of “high-quality food”. How should “high-quality” be defined, and should nutritional value feature in that?

The speakers speaking to question 1 – Jesus Anton from the OECD and Alan Matthews, an economist based in Copenhagen who is familiar with agricultural policy both in the European Commission and the Scottish Government – took us very eloquently through a brief history of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (focusing originally on farm-level production) right up to the current goal of bringing food and agriculture policies closer together in a food systems approach, with a strong emphasis on innovation. A doubling of support for environmental payments is also proposed in the new CAP, alongside a shift to a performance-based approach to compliance from the previous approach of monitoring adhesion to rules.

Colin Campbell, CEO at the James Hutton Institute, spoke to the second question and drew attention to the Scottish Government’s commitment to a just transition, which should be true for farmers as well as for those in the oil and gas sector, and contrasted starkly with the absence of such an approach during the miners’ strike 40 years ago. He struck an optimistic note, applauding farmers for what had already been achieved on the road to net zero, and suggested the need for simplicity in monitoring progress towards a lower carbon food sector.

Our final speaker was Jennie Macdiarmid, Director of the University of Aberdeen’s interdisciplinary challenge on health, nutrition and well-being, who posed three thought-provoking questions on “high-quality” food. She asked how to define it, giving seven potential options, including associated carbon cost, nutritional value, and economics, querying what weighting should be put on each. She challenged the audience, asking at what point quality should be defined/apply: at the farm-gate, or upon consumption? And asked what data needs to be collected to monitor the successful delivery of a new payments system.

The excellent discussion ranged from how farmers accessed knowledge to the importance of recognising innovation coming from farmers as well as scientists, from the role (and intentions) of the private sector in pushing for sustainable supply chains via the benefits of cooperation between farmers to many other topics.

There are, of course, no easy solutions. We need to work together, listen to each other, and be prepared to adapt as the climate, the land, and the geopolitics all change around us. We can learn from Europe, and hopefully we can also pass our learnings on to Europe.

Professor Maggie (Margaret) Gill, who chaired the Food and Agriculture workshop in the Scotland-Europe Initiative series, is a former head of the Macauley Institute (the JHI’s predecessor) 2000-06, former Chief Scientific Adviser on environment and rural affairs for the Scottish Government 2006-11, and former chair of the Scottish Science Advisory Council 2019-23. She is Professor Emeritus in the School of Biological Sciences at Aberdeen University.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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