In an exclusive interview for Dairy Farmer, Bruce Jobson tackles Richard Lochhead MSP, Scottish Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, on the country’s first 12 months since the referendum
Minister, the Scottish Dairy Growth Board recently established a national dairy brand to support the Scottish dairy industry – how has this been received?
The Scottish dairy brand marque was unveiled at the Royal Highland Show in June, and although it’s early days it has already had a lot of positive support from within the sector. A number of dairy companies – both small and large – have endorsed the initiative and I fully expect more to get involved in the months ahead. Further promotional activities are planned to launch the brand onto international markets, and this includes the official launch which took place in October at the Anuga Food Trade Show in Cologne. I’m confident that having a strong, easily identifiable, logo on our excellent Scottish dairy produce will help the sector grow and add value.
How important a role does the Scottish dairy industry – including cheese, yoghurts and specialist foods – play in the Scottish economy both domestically and internationally?
Scotland’s dairy sector is vital to Scotland’s farming and food industry, and the wider rural economy. We have about 1000 dairy farms, with 2000 processing employees, which generate well over £400 million of output – that’s 15% of our total farming productivity. This sector’s future is of real importance to Scotland. About 40% of Scottish domestic supply of dairy products is consumed in Scotland, with the remaining 60% exported, mainly to the rest of the UK. That is why the Scottish dairy brand is key – I want to see more Scottish dairy produce making it onto the international market.
What measures – if any – can be put in place to support dairy farmers in the current price melt down?
The Scottish Government is acutely aware of the pressures currently faced by dairy producers – on account mainly of global markets and wider economic influences. To help mitigate these, we’ve been proactive on a number of fronts. In March, we launched the Dairy Action Plan to take forward the recommendations set out in the earlier industry-led Scottish Dairy Review – ‘Ambition 2025.’ Our Dairy Growth Board – ably led by Paul Grant (chairman of Mackay’s jam) – is making good progress on a number of initiatives to promote the industry and increase its reach in key UK and international markets. The Scottish Dairy Brand is but one strand of its work – along with the creation of the Scottish Dairy Hub as a free, farmer-focused, information service, working to benefit the Scottish dairy industry. We’ve supported First Milk with the upgrading of Campbeltown Creamery and provided assistance to the co-op to help with haulage costs of milk from farmers on Bute. We are also active on the political stage – through my recent participation in a meeting with the other UK Farming Ministers and industry leaders where we agreed to work together on a list of commitments that supermarkets and the food service sector will be asked to sign up to and to support farmers. These are likely to include seeking firm commitments on issues such as branding, contracts and sourcing – initially for milk but with a view to extending it to other products including lamb – helping to ensure farmers get a fair price for their produce.
The controversial Land Reform Bill is scheduled to be introduced in 2016. Section Five includes ‘the right to buy land’. What is the Scottish Government’s position and reasons for the introduction of the Bill?
Land reform is a vital part of this Government’s aspirations for a fairer, more equal and socially just Scotland. The Bill’s provisions aim to ensure an effective system of land governance and on-going commitment to land reform in Scotland, enhance sustainable development in relation to land, improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership, and modernise and improve existing aspects of land ownership and rights over land.
Minister, it’s said 50% of land in Scotland is reportedly owned by 100 people. Will the Land Reform Bill pave the way for far reaching changes to the way land is owned within Scotland?
The Land Reform Review Group noted it had been estimated around 432 individuals own half of the privately-owned rural land in Scotland. The Land Reform Bill proposes the establishment of a Scottish Land Commission and a new duty for Scottish Ministers to publish and review a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, setting out the Scottish Government’s objectives on land reform. These proposals will be key to ensuring land reform is an on-going process and Scotland’s land benefits the many, not the few.
Section six includes the proposal to remove business rate exemption for sporting estates. Will this proposal have a detrimental impact within rural Scottish communities?
This proposal is about fairness, subjecting shooting and deerstalking to a rates bill in the same way as other non-domestic ratepayers. We recognise all taxes have an impact, but so do tax breaks such as this one. Scotland already has the most competitive business tax environment in the UK, and shooting and deerstalking will be eligible for rates relief in the same way as other businesses – with many small shootings likely to receive 100% rates relief under our Small Business Bonus Scheme. The revenue will support the Scottish Land Fund, which will help communities throughout Scotland to become more resilient and sustainable through the ownership and management of land.
The Scottish National Party secured an historic election victory in May 2015 – winning every Westminster Parliamentary seat except three. Why? And can you explain the increased support from agricultural and ruralbased constituencies?
The SNP has made supporting Scotland’s rural communities and economy a priority in government. In the past, farmers saw rural interests repeatedly traded off against other UK priorities, for example, when Westminster negotiated Scotland to the bottom of the CAP funding table meaning we lost out on substantial direct farm payments which would make a real difference to farmers across the country. The Scottish Government, in contrast, supported the agricultural sector by negotiating a new CAP for Scotland and secured a Scottish clause tackling ‘slipper’ farming; is working to protect and promote new entrants; secured improved greening measures; and brokered a transition year. Our record of action and accessibility, as a government, has seen support grow in rural areas, but we certainly do not take that support for granted.
That nicely leads us on to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in 2016. The SNP seems likely to secure another majority at the polls – will the expected mandate provide greater security to Scottish agriculture and the dairy industry?
As I said before, we certainly don’t take people’s support, or the possible outcome of the next elections, for granted. Absolutely, we will be campaigning for the strongest rural mandate possible and we are currently talking with farmers and farming organisations, such as the NFU, as part of our manifesto development process.
The CAP budget is now fixed until 2020. Presuming the UK and/or Scotland remain in the EU – can the Scottish Government secure a fairer share of a future CAP budget?
It will be for the UK Government to negotiate the share of EU funding received by Scotland, as was the case for the current funding period. The Scottish Government will argue for a fairer settlement than the UK Government managed to secure this time round, where 16 member states successfully negotiated an increase in their Rural Development share, and where the full uplift to the UK direct payment budget, as a result of Scotland’s low allocation, was not passed on to Scottish farmers.
Will Scotland miss out by not allowing GM crops?
No, in fact, there are obvious commercial benefits to Scotland from remaining clearly recognised as a ‘GM-free’ nation. Indeed, protecting the clean, green status of our multi-billion pound food and drink sector was our primary consideration when we opted to maintain a precautionary approach to GM. The latest official figures show food and drink generated a record £14.3bn for our economy, and recent surveys show the value people and producers attach to the heritage and provenance of Scottish produce. I am certain Scotland, like Europe’s biggest country Germany, has made the right decision.
Finally, Minister, Scotland has launched a new Food and Drink export plan. Although early days, has the initiative achieved targeted success within the global markets?
I actually launched the export plan in 2014, so in that short time we’ve been able to see in 2014 food exports alone grew by 3.5% on 2013. This was driven primarily by an increase in fish and seafood, which was up £38m. This means Scottish food exports have surpassed the £1.1bn mark, with total food and drink exports valued at £5.1bn in 2014. We are now seeing a rise in the popularity of Scottish produce in emerging markets.
In China, for example, we’ve witnessed a massive increase of 82% in food exports, with the overall value now up to £46 million – evidence the Chinese appreciate great Scottish seafood and meat. In line with the export plan we have been putting specialists in our ‘top prospect’ export markets. The top international destination for Scottish food and drink produce remains the USA, with exports worth £800m, followed by France, with exports of £734m in 2014. For the first time Spain has entered the top three export destinations for Scottish food and drink, with exports valued at £247m.