Regardless of independence, Scottish farmers are on a very different trajectory to those farming south of the Border, but lessons from Brexit should send a firm warning that any future friction at the Scottish Border will have grave consequences for the UK’s highly integrated food supply chains.

Brexit was of huge significance to Scottish rural voters, many of whom have been looking closely at the impact it has had on UK agriculture and will draw conclusions as to the likely impact of another separation – but one much closer to home.

Despite a deal being decided between the UK and the EU in the 11th hour, trading relations between the two have been anything but friction-free, with many agricultural exporters facing added bureaucracy and costs at the Border. Images of lorries queuing at Dover and fresh produce condemned to landfill will be fresh in many people’s minds – a scenario that should be avoided at all costs in the event of any trade agreement between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

However, many argue that Brexit has flagged up the UK Government’s lack of interest in supporting and maintaining food production in England, demonstrated by its plans for a future agricultural policy which looks to phase out direct support for farmers entirely by 2027. This is a vision not shared by the Scottish Government, which has committed to maintain some direct payments alongside incentivising farmers to reduce carbon emissions and deliver environmental goods.

Since Scotland already has much of the devolved responsibility for agriculture and the environment, an independent Scotland may not result in any significant immediate agricultural policy changes. Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the four devolved administrations already had very different agricultural support packages that reflected local political priorities, land quality and farming systems.

Agricultural economist Steven Thomson, from Scotland’s Rural College, explained that this policy divergence continues in the post-EU era, where agricultural policies are evolving at different rates and with different priorities.

“What was perceived as a level playing field across the UK has long-gone for farmers,” he said. “This ‘uncommon agricultural policy’ is largely a legacy of the EU devolving decisions on CAP implementation to regions and the four administrations of the UK making very different choices. When you add-in Brexit, and the ongoing policy evolutions, it means that we already have very different farm support regimes in Scotland, England Northern Ireland and Wales.

“In Scotland and Northern Ireland, politicians and officials have been clear on the need to support sustainable and efficient food production that maintains economic activity in some of our remotest rural areas, but in England and Wales there appears a greater emphasis on environmental renewal and innovation to compete in global food markets. These differences will certainly be more challenging for cross-border farms, regardless of the outcome of any independence referendum.”

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One of the main concerns shared by the farming community in the event of Scottish independence, are fears over a hard border with England and what that would mean for trading relations, particularly given the UK’s complex interconnected food supply chains.

The Scottish Government laments its separation from the UK’s biggest export market, the EU, but the fact remains that the rest of the UK is still the major consumer market for many Scottish farm outputs, be that soft fruit, beef, lamb, potatoes, etc. Livestock currently move freely across the country and a network of food processors and retailers are located the length and breadth of the country. As such, any potential changes to the trading relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK as a result of independence, particularly any border controls, could have far reaching consequences.

Tensions may also rise should any future independent Scotland seek to re-join the EU. Mr Thomson did, however, point to the Northern Ireland protocol that permitted continued flow of goods and services between the EU and Northern Ireland saying, “an effective trade model now exists” – but just how effective that is remains a moot point, especially given the problems that have arisen with traditional livestock trading between the Province and Scotland.

It is often forgotten that the Scottish Government already have legislative powers to keep Scotland aligned to EU rules and on many occasions, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for agriculture, Mairi Gougeon MSP, has reiterated that any future farming policy will be determined with one eye on what is happening in Europe.

A plus point might be that if an independent Scotland were successful in re-joining the EU, then there may be scope for the return to free movement of labour that could solve some of the post-Brexit and Covid labour challenges facing sectors such as horticulture and meat processing –which have been well publicised this past year. That remains a huge “if” given that such a scenario would be fraught with complications and tensions regarding the movement and rights of migrants within the British Isles, should butchers or fruit pickers, for example, wish to seek work south of the Border.

If Scotland chose to become independent but is unable to meet the necessary accession requirements for the EU, then there could be even bigger agri-food workforce issues, with an already stretched home supply. Despite numerous initiatives to help train domestic workers in Scotland, farming bodies have been clear to government that attracting and retaining a local workforce has been next to impossible and without imminent advances in mechanisation and subsequent investment and support from government, Scotland will simply have to recruit talent from elsewhere or in a worst-case scenario, pull the plug on labour intensive activities such as fruit and vegetable production.

Agricultural support budgets remain an important issue regardless of independence status. Currently the Scottish farming sector relies on decisions in both Westminster and Holyrood. As an independent country Scotland would have full budgetary autonomy and political priorities would largely determine allocations of public monies, including to agriculture. However, should an independent Scotland successfully re-enter the EU then some of that budget autonomy would cede to the EU collective decision-making process – particularly on agriculture.

The future viability of farming in an independent Scotland will be dependent on a number of factors, but a good deal being struck with the rest of the UK that will have free movement of people and products over the Border, remains the most important. Any disruption to this process could have grave consequences, particularly for farmers and related businesses who operate on both sides of the Scottish Border but also more widely on food supply chains.