Agriculture Bill provides just transition opportunity, but only if we embrace innovation

Potato field

Prof Wayne Powell sees opportunity for growth in our natural economy- but only if we act quickly

On one hand the progress report by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) to the Scottish Parliament published on 7 December provides a daunting assessment of the decisions and actions still needing taken if we are to hope to hit vital net zero targets. On the other though, I see opportunity, particularly for rapid growth in our natural economy – but only if we take steps to act quickly, decisively and with ambition.

Yes, the committee tells us, Scotland’s net zero and interim targets remain appropriate, but we need to adjust our annual targets and make detailed “quantified” plans, especially if we are to avoid falling well short of where we need to be by 2030. This would be a sobering prospect at the best of times but all the more so against a backdrop of public sector spending restraint, economic downturn, high inflation, spiralling energy costs and the war in Ukraine. Choices about how to adjust at the pace required are all tough calls.

But make them we must, through all the means at our disposal. How the Scottish Government’s new Agriculture Bill takes final form during 2023 will be a crucial litmus test of whether we harness policy to keep us on the path to net zero.

Proposals for this vital legislation, which closed for consultation this month, must be harnessed as an opportunity to make rapid in-roads on the part that our food, agriculture and land use systems have to play on the journey to net zero. As the CCC points out, putting in place detailed policy on how post-CAP agricultural subsidies and schemes in Scotland will target funding and delivery for climate mitigation is fundamental to the success of farmers in the next few years.

At the same time the sector needs guidance and support on wider environmental goals such as climate change adaptation and biodiversity. Land use strategies to support agroforestry, hedgerow expansion and energy crops on Scottish farms have to be accompanied by the rapid uptake of systems that continue to support R&D into low carbon farming practices, including behavioural, innovation and productivity measures.

In our consultation response SRUC has broadly welcomed the proposed four-tier Future Payment Framework, which will replace the CAP system with a mixture of direct and indirect payments designed to support farmers’ incomes and incentivise environmental sustainability. A well-tailored approach is crucial because the Scottish Government has a unique opportunity here: to reshape a post-Brexit payments system for the needs of Scotland, particularly with a view to supporting the smaller operators who need the most support.

Yet just as urgency is required on additional detail of how aspects of the payments system like ‘conditionality’ will work in practice for farmers, other key features of the system need to align. We must avoid additional, onerous and needless red tape for business, while also ensuring that mechanisms are in place to boost skills training, continuous professional development and facilitated peer to peer learning for farmers through the tier system.

We can identify plenty of prime examples of what this looks like in practice. Digital Dairy Chain, based at our Barony Campus and supported by £21.3m from the UK Government’s Strength in Places Fund, is set to deliver some 600 jobs and £60 million of investment overall from a range of partners including the University of Strathclyde, University of the West of Scotland, CENSIS, First Milk, Lactalis UK & Ireland, Kendal Nutricare, Cows & Co Group, National Milk Records and SmartSTEMs. Its focus will be on harnessing cutting-edge tech to deliver new and better food supply chains that will transform both productivity and sustainability.

Similarly, the Rural Animal Veterinary Innovation Centre (RAVIC), which we’re developing in collaboration with Highlands and Islands Enterprise in Inverness, will boost livestock sustainability through advances in epidemiology, zoonoses, infectious disease control and veterinary surveillance.

These projects entail deep collaboration between institutions in harness with businesses. They’re delivering the sort of ambitious solutions-focused interventions that we need if we’re to hit net zero at the pace needed while also promising a more prosperous future for agricultural communities.

As I had the opportunity to discuss with colleagues from across the UK and Europe at SRUC’s recent Alliance for the Natural Economy Forum at Scotland House in London, backing a collaborative focus on innovation is the right approach and one that we need to double down on in the next few years.  

Not only will we up the ante on the battle against climate change, just as the CCC has said must happen; we’ll also release the potential of businesses and institutions to invest substantially in innovation, growing Scotland’s natural capital along the way.

Posted by Prof Wayne Powell, Principal and CEO, SRUC on 13/12/2022

Tags: Agriculture, Policy, Economy
Categories: SRUC and Campuses | Natural Economy