What might Scotland learn from the EU on food system transformation?

March 13 2024, by Alan Matthews

Since the UK and Scotland left the EU in 2020, the EU has introduced a reform of its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that was agreed in 2021 and introduced on 1 January 2023. This reform is due to make “a much stronger contribution” to the goals of the European Green Deal introduced by the European Commission in 2019. The flagship element of the latter was the European Climate Law which sets a legal target for the Union to become climate neutral by 2050.

The Green Deal was accompanied by the Farm to Fork Strategy for a more sustainable food and agricultural sector, and a Biodiversity Strategy intended to drive the recovery of biodiversity and the protection of nature. Both strategies gave rise to a raft of subsequent legislation, although this legislation has become increasingly contested as food security concerns have returned to centre stage. Are there lessons from these recent EU developments that could help to inform the ongoing debate in Scotland around its own Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill?

New CAP sets a different tone

The relevant elements in the reformed CAP include:

  • Area-based payments are maintained, but with greater emphasis on targeting smaller farms through a mandatory redistributive payment. This is essentially a requirement to make higher payments on an initial number of hectares on a farmer’s land, with the precise number left up to individual Member States to determine.
  • Farmers are used to the idea of cross-compliance, where they must observe certain minimum standards and practices as a condition for eligibility for payments. The CAP reform strengthened these conditions, for example, by requiring crop rotation and a minimum area devoted to landscape features for nature protection purposes.
  • A shift towards greater environmental ambition, as 25% of the area-based payments budget must now be ear-marked for eco-schemes intended to address environmental, climate and animal welfare objectives. It is up to the Member States to design these schemes, and almost 160 different eco-schemes are offered to farmers across the EU, so potentially a lot to learn about what works or not as these schemes are rolled out to farmers.
  • Greater emphasis on a performance-based approach, linked to indicators reflecting results and outcomes. The portfolio of indicators remains the same as when Scotland was part of the EU (output, result and impact). This results-based approach, though still needing development, could also be of interest to Scotland.
  • A carbon farming initiative, where it is hoped that credible carbon sequestration in soils and biomass could open up a potential new income stream for farmers. Credibility will be enhanced by new criteria for carbon farming to be developed under the recently-adopted Certification Framework for Carbon Removals law.


On the regulatory side, the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies set out a vision for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system. A set of legislative initiatives designed to incorporate this vision into legal targets has emerged. Although the general direction of travel was approved by both the Council of Ministers and European Parliament in 2020, there has been pushback against the legal targets included in specific legislative initiatives in the light of concerns about food supply following the COVID pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global supply chain disruptions, and the damages caused by extreme weather events.

For example, a Commission proposal to include large cattle farms within the scope of the Industrial Emissions Directive intended to limit air pollutants and improve air quality was not adopted. Another Commission proposal to set legal targets to reduce the use of pesticide active substances in farming was also rejected by the European Parliament and ultimately withdrawn by the Commission. Political agreement on a Commission proposal for a new Nature Protection Law was reached in November 2023 but only after the obligations for nature protection on farmland were watered down considerably.

MEPs approved the political agreement in February 2024 but the outcome of the final vote in the Council of Ministers tentatively scheduled for April 2024 remains uncertain despite its previous support for the agreement. A similar political agreement between the Council and Parliament had been reached in December 2023 on another relevant piece of legislation, the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. This would require companies to identify, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts of their activities on human rights, environment and climate. However, the Council has voted against its final approval and at the time of writing it now looks as if this legislation will also not proceed.

There are thus useful lessons from the EU experience in terms of substantive agricultural policy changes and legislative initiatives that the EU has introduced or contemplated and that could inform the debate in Scotland as it proceeds to implement the ambitions of the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act.

But the EU experience also contains lessons for the process of transformation, on how to communicate the need for change to stakeholders, but also how to manage the inevitable trade-offs between conflicting priorities and winners and losers.

Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

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.

You might also like