Innovation will be key to the Scottish farming industry’s survival, but questions remain over how it should be targeted and how affordable it would be.
Sector leaders gathering at an Edinburgh conference to discuss mid-term progress with the Government-sponsored Ag-Tech Strategy said big changes were afoot and farmers needed to be prepared.
Professor Louise Heathwaite, the Scottish Government’s chief scientific adviser for rural affairs and the environment, said: “Major societal change is underway and this affects the approach we need to take to energy, food and water.”
What had become known as ‘sustainable intensification’ would become ever more important and there was plenty of data around to support this, she said.
“At the same time, support payments make up two-thirds of net farm income. Brexit will change that and we need to think how we can use innovation to support farming,” added Prof Heathwaite.
Prof Heathwaite quoted a David Hume Institute report from 2008 which suggested livestock numbers would have to substantially reduce.
New crops would be introduced as the climate changed. For example, vineyards could be established further north than ever before.
The report had predicted the Common Agricultural Policy would eventually be abolished but Brexit had brought that forward, at least for the UK, the conference heard.
But if this was to provide the background for innovation it did not find favour with former NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller.
Mr Miller, a farmer and vet who sits on the board of the Moredun Research Institute, said: “I agree we have to innovate but we have to do so on the grounds that cattle and sheep will be here for 50 years and far longer. We can make livestock production much more efficient which helps meet climate change targets.
“There are major problems to tackle such as the cereal yield plateau, but at the same time we have to ask how farmers are supposed to be able to afford innovative technology when the average annual farm income in Scotland last year was only £12,600.”