Try mentioning the “agricultural subsidy reform”, and see the light drain from other people’s eyes. Apart from a handful of die-hard enthusiasts, the new Agriculture Bill is failing to ignite the nation’s imagination. But it should! The government is designing a new farming subsidy system – the first one ever made in Scotland –and there are many reasons for everyone to care about this issue.
Firstly, the Bill will have major implications for biodiversity and our transition to net zero. Nearly three quarters of Scotland’s land is used for farming. What we do with this land – what we produce on it and how we produce it – has huge impact on our wildlife. The subsidy reform could ensure we pay farmers to leave room for nature, create wildlife corridors, and grow sufficient diversity of crops to support pollinators. We could pay more to farmers who use less pesticides and antibiotics. We could also encourage them to create and maintain vital carbon sinks in the soils, pastures and peatlands. With agriculture accounting for approximately 20% of Scotland’s carbon emissions, we will not get to net zero without just transition in farming.
Secondly, there is a strong link between our collective health and wellbeing and agriculture. There are of course the obvious impacts from the use of antibiotics and pesticides, but the current system has other paradoxes at play. One of the contradictions is that it pays comparatively little to those producing fruit and veg. That’s because the majority of the payments are based on the amount of land farmed, and fruit and veg production uses less land than beef farming or cereal crops. Increasing subsidies to those that grow more of what we need to eat to stay healthy would make these foods more affordable to all. Incidentally, linking the subsidy to the area of land also means that biggest landowners get most of public money – something that certainly needs to be reassessed! Finally, we also need to consider if subsidising the cereal crops which are used to produce alcohol is a good use of public money.
Thirdly, what we subsidise says a lot about our food culture and what we value. Many people want Scotland to produce more of what we eat, and for us to eat more of what we produce. Subsidy reform can be locus of this change. This means supporting urban agriculture and small scale farmers, both of which tend to sell direct to consumers, not to commodity markets. We could also offer a percentage of the agriculture budget to local authorities to help them procure food locally. Finally, we could support those who produce nutrient-dense, heritage varieties of foods, which are as important for our health as they are for growing a stronger food culture.
So, what can you and I do? The consultation on the new scheme closes on 21st November. This is a good place to have your views heard directly by the government, but it’s not the only opportunity. The Bill will not be passed until 2023/24, and between now and then there will be plenty of opportunities to write to MSPs, sign petitions and make sure a wide range of voices are heard. For more updates, you can keep an eye on the Farm for Scotland’s Future campaign. Or you could try dropping “agricultural subsidy reform” into conversation and get others enthused about the possibility of change.