Turning green

Lambing’s done and silage hasn’t quite started. May is the deadline each year for farmers and crofters in Scotland to submit their application for farm support, and this year it’s just a little bit different.

Alongside the main scheme (which is staying put for now) the Government’s launching a National Test Programme. It’s offering every farmer and crofter some extra cash if they do a carbon audit for their business and they test their soil. This matters: farming accounts for around a fifth of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we’ve got to reduce that by around a third in the next ten years to stay on course for net zero.

Soil matters too. Managing it well means it’s more productive, and helps to lock up carbon from the atmosphere. And to manage means to measure.

The scheme’s a good start: and in some ways, what’s most important is the way it’s framed as helping to ‘future proof farming’. As the guidance says ‘In the future climate mitigation and how biodiversity is looked after and encouraged by businesses, will be a condition businesses have to meet to receive agricultural support payments’. In the nicest possible way, this is ‘get with the programme’.

The scheme was announced originally at COP26 and it’s the first stage in the replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a ‘made in Scotland’ version. Next year will see a new Agriculture Bill and the bones of the new scheme, though full implementation will most likely take until 2026.

The green stuff always used to be the afterthought, the add-on bit of farm support. Now it’s moving to the centre, and farmers all over Scotland are reinventing themselves as we’ve seen with our recent partnership project on agroecology.

Food and farming have been a major cause of the climate and nature crisis, and they are an indispensable part of the solution. So this is a key first step in Scotland: farming with nature rather than ‘farming here, nature there’. We must and will produce food in a very different way.

But we need to do more than this. Roughly half of the environmental impact of our food system happens outside Scotland, in the places which supply us with food and animal feed. We need to reduce that – not least by making sure we’re not importing soya or palm oil which is driving deforestation.

We also need to think more broadly about how we use our land, and what we want to encourage with public money. Most of our arable land is used to grow barley. Half of that barley goes to produce alcohol – should public money subsidise that? Most of the rest goes to feed cattle which have the natural gift of being able to thrive on grass.

Could we re-connect farming with food? How can farm support align with our other policies on healthy and sustainable diets, on community wealth-building? Could we support small-scale veg growers in and around our towns and cities and connect them to schools and communities? Could we revive our glasshouse industry with our massive resource of renewable energy?

With the Good Food Nation bill going through Parliament we’ve got an opportunity to create a joined-up food policy covering agriculture, environment, health, food security, food waste, trade, planning and so on. The scheme we develop to replace the CAP is part of this wider policy. It should help farmers and crofters deliver multiple benefits for nature, climate and people – and get a fair return for their work.