SCOTLAND’S FARMING future could be in strong, capable hands with the SNP, if it wasn’t for the prospect of a looming independence referendum and a blinkered approach to tree planting, which puts the future of the industry under threat.

Independence supporters are the first to lament the loss of seamless trade with the EU, so why then after witnessing our food exporters being strangled by red tape and additional costs, would they be so brash as to put our producers through another tumultuous break-up.

The SNP has pledged to re-join the EU in an independent Scotland, despite the fact our biggest trading partner is right here on our doorstep – with nearly 70% of Scotland’s food exports sold within the UK single market.

The London School of Economics has estimated that independence would be between two and three times as costly as Brexit, even if Scotland regains membership with the EU.

Make no mistake, our ties with the UK are deeper and stronger than those we shared with our European neighbours, which will make a separation longer and more painful, putting hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk that rely on trade with the rest of the UK.

Over the past week I have studied the rural manifesto’s of Scotland’s major parties and all are centred around the role of rural Scotland in paving the way for net zero, with investment in the environment and tree planting targets top of the agenda.

There was little disagreement across the board from the five main parties who have all committed to incentivising a shift to low carbon food production, improving local food supply chains, investing in nature restoration, offering support for new entrants to get a step on to the farming ladder and cracking down on rural crime.

Since leaving the EU, the Scottish Government has had the opportunity to create a bespoke agricultural support system shaped to Scotland’s unique farming profile but has chosen to maintain equivalent EU funding until 2024, in order to offer the industry stability and time to adapt to a future system.

The Scottish Greens have criticised this approach in their manifesto, calling for the next government to fast track a new system which will reward farmers to deliver a range of public benefits including the likes of soil conservation, peatland restoration, flood management and agroecology. All admirable and important objectives but they appear to have left an important public good off their list - food production.

The SNP, however, remains committed to supporting food production with direct payments. By 2025, they have pledged to shift half of all funding for farming and crofting from unconditional to conditional support with targeted outcomes for biodiversity gain and a drive towards low carbon approaches.

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With numerous new faces soon to join the SNP’s ranks, both green with experience and in their ambition, Scottish farming would benefit from the stability of having Fergus Ewing return to the helm of the rural remit. Over the past five years, Mr Ewing has taken time to listen to the concerns and demands of the industry, understanding the balance which has to be struck between producing food and supporting our environment and will be a strong voice in Holyrood when demands on the public purse tighten and rural funding could be in the firing line.

He understands that there is much to be gained from integrating woodlands with existing farm enterprises, however, do others in the party? Will the new recruits be as opposed to whole farm afforestation?

It is clear from the SNP’s rural manifesto that their funding priorities for the years ahead lies with big investment in restoring natural habitats, planting trees, and boosting biodiversity, but they must be careful not to allow key sectors of Scotland’s rural economy to slip through the funding net in the process.

Their pledge to establish a £15m fund to support food processors and manufacturers transition to low carbon operations, pales in comparison to their £500m pledge to address biodiversity loss.

No detail is given on plans to invest in a local abattoir network across Scotland in order to reduce the distance of animals to slaughter, which would cut down food miles and ensure money is retained in rural communities through supporting local employment.

It is all very well to commit to turning over vast areas of our land to wildflower meadows to boost bird populations and pollinators, but farmers must be recognised for the work they are already doing in supporting biodiversity alongside producing food for our nation.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Greens have the most ambitious plans for the environment by pledging to give Forestry Land Scotland an additional £200 million to grow the public forest by approximately 50,000 hectares – doubling Scotland’s woodland coverage to 40%.

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Despite not wanting to offer subsidy support for food production, the Greens have refreshing ideas around supporting local food supply chains. They have pledged to establish local crofter and producer food co-ops to sell direct to the public and the hospitality and tourist trade, as well as a multitude of initiatives to build shorter supply chains and improve distribution networks between rural and urban areas.

They might want to rethink their pledge to support a lynx reintroduction trial as part of their species reintroduction plans, as it ignores the concerns from farmers around the devastation this could have on Scotland’s sheep flocks. But perhaps this is all part of their other manifesto proposal to reduce sheep numbers. It is one which will lose them favour with the farming fraternity.

During a political hustings last week, concerns arose around blanket tree planting targets which could threaten Scotland’s productive farming land. Fergus Ewing called for more to be done in persuading the panel on climate change to recognise the contribution of permanent grassland in sequestering carbon.

With all parties boasting ambitious tree planting targets as their answer to achieving net zero, maybe it is time to take off the blinkers and start recognising that grass is a carbon sink and grazing animals is not only an effective sequestration tool but has additional advantages of boosting biodiversity, injecting money into rural communities and feeding the nation.