FARMING has long been an afterthought in policy agendas, but the treatment since Brexit of a once cherished and valued industry has become one of the UK and ScottishGovernment’s biggest betrayals to date.

Brexit was sold to farmers as an opportunity to free the industry from the archaic and bureaucratic system of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – which for many years has stifled innovation and directed funds in the direction of big landowners and slipper farmers, rather than toward active farmers. 

Yet, one year down the line and English farmers are preparing for a future where direct support for food production is removed and delivering environmental outcomes is their only viable option. 

Scottish farmers, meanwhile, lack clarity over future support for farming and await direction from an SNP Government solely concerned with aligning with EU principles – in order to allow for a smoother ascension to EU membership in the event of winning an independence referendum.

Farming has become a political pawn, and livelihoods in the industry collateral damage, in the long-term strategies by the nation’s leaders.

The powers that be have forgotten the importance of food production and the contribution farmers play, not only to feeding the nation, but to conserving the landscapes that are the backdrop to a thriving tourism industry, providing a home for much of the UK’s wildlife and ensuring the survival of many rural communities and our rich cultural heritage.

In Scotland, the Government is complicit in the loss of critical mass in farming by pushing ambitious tree-planting targets, as part of its green agenda, that are at times to the detriment of rural areas. Incentives offered to plant trees have contributed to soaring land prices as farmers struggle to compete for land for agricultural production against those seeking to turn the countryside into forests.

Whilst their tree-planting agenda has been ambitious, their delivery of a new policy for the future of Scottish agriculture has been sorely lacking. 

Andrew McCornick was at the helm of Scotland’s largest farming lobbying body, NFU Scotland, during the build-up to, and aftermath of, Brexit and publicly challenged the Government for its lack of action.

HeraldScotland:

“Governments determine policy, not discussion groups, yet the SNP Government has produced many documents from many groups over many years and should be fully aware of where the industry needs to go and how,” he stressed.

“They all have merit, but it seems to stop there. There is a lack of delivery – just an opportunity to start another group. I have said before, stop dithering and start delivering – the facts are before you.

“I believe we are inching closer to getting an agriculture policy for Scotland, but it needs to be tested practically or the unintended consequences, such as blanket forestry, rewilding or carbon off-setting, could become destructive to farms, crofts, local businesses and suppliers, undermining the economy and community viability around them.”

Although south of the Border, tree-planting targets fall short of Scotland’s ambitions, the UK Government is carrying out its own unique campaign to turn farmers into park keepers, who are to be paid to plant hedgerows, protect our watercourses and improve our air quality, with food production a mere by-product of their activities.

Mr McCornick describes the policy as “a great moral vision with no impact assessment on the industry or economy and one which appears to have been concocted by people behind comfortable desks and not in contact with the reality on the ground. In Scotland we are being promised jam tomorrow as there is no policy yet, just targets to meet on climate, environment, biodiversity and the Scotland Food and Drink ambition for 2030, but no roadmap on how.

“Both administrations are lacking vision on food security and the economy locally and nationally. Despite the pandemic, there is an opportunity to build on our strengths, but the politicians seem to be the problem rather than the solution.”

Post-Brexit, the UK Government has been so blinkered by its desire to gain geopolitical influence through trade deals that it is wilfully neglecting its commitment to ensuring that future imports from global agri exporters subscribe to the strict welfare and food standards it imposes on its own farmers. 

Mr McCornick sat on the original Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) that set out recommendations on conducting trade negotiations to the UK Government – which however, appear to have been largely ignored so far – in an attempt to ensure fairness for farmers and consumers regarding imports.

“Being advisory, there is no teeth within the statutory TAC terms, nor parliamentary scrutiny other than via the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act [CRAG], which is just a 21-sitting-day scrutiny period and not an open debate,” explained Mr McCornick.

“It was designed as a basic rubber stamp process for EU trade deals that had been debated in Brussels. It feels like the cart before the horse – do the deal and then [do] limited scrutiny.”

HeraldScotland:

Harrowing scenes from foot and mouth 2001

 

 

The UK Government may be careering ahead with its overseas trade campaign yet, closer to home, it is ignoring trade frictions with the EU. 

The UK continues to hand over its advantage by delaying checks on imports from Europe, yet exports from the UK continue to face burdensome bureaucracy and eye-watering costs in crossing the channel.

A boastful Brexit campaign to take back control has been nothing but empty words, as UK farmers – who are already facing tighter margins due to input costs spiralling – are now navigating an uneven playing field in competition with their closest neighbour. It is a shocking betrayal of British businesses.

Yet a bigger betrayal could yet materialise if a lack of adequate veterinary checks at the border were to allow a fatal pig disease to cross our shores and potentially expose the country to another global pandemic.

African swine fever is sweeping through the EU, wiping out pig herds, and the UK Government is playing with fire by allowing retailers to continue to import meat from countries where the disease has been identified. 

A disease with a mortality rate approaching 100 per cent, and which has already claimed the lives of one third of the world’s pigs since 2019, has the potential to wipe out the entire UK pig herd.

Managing director of the Scottish Pig Producers, Andy McGowan, said: “There is no vaccine for this disease so the tactics used to control foot and mouth disease in 2001 are the only options, should it emerge in Scotland.”
The smell of burning livestock and pillars of black smoke which could be seen for miles should hit home to those who remember that dark time for the nation’s farmers.

“It is spreading rapidly in continental Europe, with Italy reporting its first case in wild boar last week,” Mr McGowan added. 

“That is a particular concern to us because the UK is Italy’s second biggest export market outwith the EU, mostly as cured meat products in which the virus can lie dormant for up to six months.”

Moreover, according to Professor Dirk Pfeiffer of the Royal Veterinary College, “this is the largest animal disease outbreak in history.” 

A discarded Parma ham sandwich in a park, forest or beach, if picked up by wild boar – which are found in parts of Scotland – could pass on the disease to domestic pigs – as could feeding contaminated food scraps to pigs.

Mr McGowan added: “Our island geography should give us strong protection from the virus but only if we control our borders. The UK Government has repeatedly delayed the imposition of veterinary health certification and checks on Products of Animal Origin since we left the EU.

“‘Take Back Control’ was the slogan for Brexit, so it seems frankly bizarre that the UK Government has instead taken the opportunity to eliminate all import controls instead.”
The UK Government has to start heeding warnings from industry of this looming catastrophe and take immediate action to reciprocate import controls and stop this disease in its tracks.

British farmers have been betrayed time and time again by governments in recent years despite them being painted as heroes during the pandemic for keeping the wheels of food production turning in the face of countless challenges.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of food security and strong, resilient food chains which can overcome one obstacle after another.

This cannot be forgotten in the months and years ahead but must serve as an important reminder that our food supply must be valued and future policy must support this. Protecting our farmers cannot be an afterthought.