A TURBULENT week of Brexit revelations saw the Scottish Government accuse Westminster of a power grab on devolved policies, as control over future legislation in many areas affecting the rural economy were reserved to the UK Government. As Scotland looks to having a lesser role in deciding the future of the agricultural and horticultural sector, the Scottish Green Party have told The Scottish Farmer that it is critical that the Scottish Government must not compromise on standards as Westminster negotiates new trade deals.

Mark Ruskell MSP, the Scottish Greens spokesperson for climate, energy, environment, food and farming, made his case for a successful rural economy, one which prioritises strong supply chains and high quality affordable produce, which will protect and lead to a more sustainable environment.

Mr Ruskell, who is also the Greens representative for Mid Scotland and Fife, revealed his disapproval of the Scottish Government’s recent comments to go against a potential ban on live exportation of animals. He suggested that Scotland needs to be a progressive force on these issues and said that this recent stance by the government sent the wrong message of undermining the UK Government on animal welfare standards.

Demonstrating his passion for the rural sector from a young age, Mr Ruskell discussed his early academic life and working career before becoming a parliamentary representative for the Green Party. I asked him what qualified him to be the right man to lead on rural affairs and what his party can deliver in politically unstable times?

“I represented a largely rural area in the Scottish Parliament between 2003 and 2007. Prior to this I worked for organisations like the Soil Association I did some of the early work with them in promoting community supported agriculture in Scotland back in the noughties and I have a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture," he said.

“In this session of parliament, I am on the environment committee and it’s good to be back, especially when there is a lot of uncertainty around the farming and food sector with Brexit. I believe that ideas the Greens have been talking about for many years such as shortening supply chains, getting the most value out of our food and farming, whether that is support for communities or improving the environment, are increasingly relevant and now is the time to be pushing these ideas and to be supporting the sector, but also growing it in a way that delivers a wider public objective. I’m passionate about food and farming and rural communities and feel well positioned and pleased to have a voice at this time in the Scottish Parliament,” said Mr Ruskell.

The Scottish Farmer:

Mr Ruskell with some of his chickens he keeps at home. He is also a trained beekeeper but currently doesn't have any hives

The Green Party manifesto proclaims Scotland’s potential to be an environmental leader which can at times come in to contrast with the necessity to deliver on quality but affordable produce for the nation. Mr Ruskell explained how the country must look to maintain quality food production whilst protecting its environment, revealing his concerns with future international trade deals and how this could potentially threaten Scotland’s food producers.

“There are some big macro-economic questions around trade deals and what might come out of Brexit, and my concern is that the Westminster Government may move towards a largely deregulatory trade deal with the United States. This could affect some of the quality of our food, farming and animal welfare standards, as well as the standards which protect the environment.

“I am concerned what may come out of trade deals and the tariff issue, if you look at fruit and vegetables, 80% of our fruit and vegetables come from outside the UK which could hamper our import market hugely,” warned Mr Ruskell.

Moving from the international stage to the local communities in Scotland, Mr Ruskell stressed the need for stronger supply chains and the need to build on relationships with consumers and producers in order to boost and sustain future food security.

“There is a sense of hopelessness about what we can do in rural communities in Scotland to really strengthen supply chains and ensure some security and sustainability for the sector. I think looking at the local level and how we can strengthen public procurement is really important.

“I hosted an event recently in parliament celebrating the Food For Life programme, which now involves over 900 largely public-sector catering sites in Scotland, mostly schools but also hospitals, visitor attractions as well. The whole idea is to get more local food sold in public sector canteens and to build up that relationship with local producers.

“It is a programme the Soil Association has been running and some really interesting benefits come out of it, not just for producers who are guaranteed a secure market, but also involving young people in education. Children are meeting chefs, food producers, growing food in schoolground's, keeping hens; all of these activities are building a well-rounded and sustainable food culture,” said Mr Ruskell.

The Scottish Farmer:

Mr Ruskell outside the Scottish Parliament with campaigners and fellow Green MSPs Ross Greer and Andy Wightman, protesting against ship to ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth

During the interview we were given a tour of Tomnah'a Market Garden at Comrie Croft in Perthshire, where new entrant farmers grow and deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to the local community. Mr Ruskell said that the market garden was a fantastic example of contributing to and building a sustainable food culture.

“There are a range of ways we can diversify farming and this site at Comrie Croft is a great example of creating more jobs but also shifting food culture and the market away from depending on commodities and the vagaries of global trade and creating much more resilient supply chains in local communities. People can come out and get involved and support their local farm directly, not just by eating produce but being part of the local community, which support it,” he said.

The rural spokesperson’s passion for food sustainability was clear and given the Green Party’s strong stance on food security and quality, I asked him how the party would react if the Scottish Government were to compromise on standards in order to negotiate new trade deals following Brexit – and would he ever compromise?

“Absolutely not, and I’d like to think the Scottish Government will be as strong on this, although, I recognise there may be differences in opinion within the Scottish Government and I’m not fully convinced Fergus Ewing is perhaps championing high regulations in the way of environmental standards, as much as Roseanna Cunningham is. The Green party and the SNP do share many positions in Parliament, but the recent comments made by Fergus Ewing around live animal exports is a concern and one we don’t share."

Michael Gove’s recent announcement on the potential ban on live animal exports caused a real stir within the agricultural sector and resulted in the Scottish Government declaring an outright objection to a future ban. Where the SNP and the Greens have shared similar positions on animal welfare and standards in the past, Mr Ruskell assured me this was one area where they stood in isolation.

“I would be disappointed if the Scottish Government was getting into a position where they may undermine the UK Government on animal welfare standards. That is the reverse position we want to be in, Scotland needs to be a progressive beacon on these issues, we need to lead from the perspective of quality and high animal welfare standards."

Mr Ewing, when the potential ban first came to light, made the case for the importance of transportation for the northern isles, who more recently rely on transportation especially with the closure of the Orkney abattoir. I asked Mr Ruskell how this ban would affect the Northern Islands and what his thoughts were on mobile abattoirs to service the islands?

“We have been making the case in the Greens for many years for creating the right infrastructure for slaughtering locally and I recognise there is a particular issue with the Northern Isles where sheep are reared on the islands but finished on the mainland. There is a clear need for travel, but the drive to end long distance live transport of animals across Europe is the right one, it wouldn’t actually affect the exports of animals from the Northern Isles to the mainland.

"Perhaps the fear is it might lead to this over time but there is a particular set of circumstances there, what the UK Government is pushing on is a ban of routine live exports to the continent which I think is necessary," he clarified.

“In regard to mobile abattoirs, it was certainly something we were pushing for 10 to 15 years ago, to have more mobile abattoirs serving rural Scotland. The question is where the funding is coming from for innovations like that going forward which is why we have been highlighting the cuts to the SRDP budgets that are coming through. If we are serious about re-localising food production and the supply chain, then parts of that are going to need investment,” Mr Ruskell continued.

“Again, I have been disappointed where the Scottish Government have only focused efforts on trying to bring convergence funding to Scotland. We have supported this, but at the same time they were planning cuts to SRDP way before the opportunity of getting convergence funding into Scotland became apparent. My concern is the general direction of travel and where we go in Scotland, whether we will continue to see investment in rural development and investment in the supply chains for rural areas which mobile abattoirs could be part of.

“If we are going to see post Brexit cash pulled out of from under us, then it is difficult to see how communities and group of farmers working cooperatively together can make sense of opportunities coming forward. Mobile abattoirs are part of the picture of the infrastructure we need locally to get supply chains working effectively,” stated Mr Ruskell.

The Scottish Farmer:

Mark Ruskell met with Scottish Farmer Reporter Claire Taylor during a visit to Tomnah'a Market Garden at Comrie Croft in Perthshire

The recent drive by the Scottish Government for planting trees has received mixed views by Scottish farmers, those who are incentivised by government funding have diversified their farms, but others have felt these grants have come at the detriment of livestock production. I asked Mr Ruskell his thoughts on how the initiative was being handled and if it was completely necessary for Scotland?

“I think it is absolutely needed but there needs to be a more creative approach to integrate forestry with agriculture. If you go to Norway, farm forestry is what everybody does and it a similar landscape on the west coast of Norway to what we have in Scotland, so I don’t see a reason why this can’t happen. If you look at the SRDP agri-forestry grant scheme there was only one application to it in the last year and the scheme has been cut, the government is pulling money out of some of the streams of innovations like agri-forestry and it is clearly not being promoted enough to farmers who can benefit from it.

"This is really disappointing as there are really good ways to integrate livestock with forestry and trees, but it needs to be done in a way appropriate to Scottish conditions and that is where government funding can support that. Tree planting may be a concern to some traditional upland farmers who perhaps don’t see what the benefits are, they need the encouragement and possibly even some subsidy support as well, to start to move in to that area,” said Mr Ruskell.

“Where we are just now at Comrie Croft is interesting, as it was traditionally a sheep farm, but the upland areas here on the hill are now going over towards forestry. Here is an example of commercial forestry, but also public access, with mountain bike trails and the productive arable part of the farm is now a horticulture enterprise which is creating three jobs from just three hectares. We must look at where can we create jobs and economic growth opportunities. What used to be rough grazing is now creating employment opportunities, so it is important to make the absolute best use of the land to benefit the wider rural economy."

The Scottish Government has banned Genetically Modified Organisms here in Scotland which has always been a policy red line area for the Scottish Green Party. Mr Ruskell insisted that there was no public demand for GM produce and the long term environmental impacts would be a cause for concern.

“My concern with GM is that it is a single strand technological approach, marketed primarily by agrochemical companies. We must start looking at whole farm systems and there is some great research going on in Scotland, looking at how we make agricultural systems more productive but also more resilient to climate change and disease risks that are coming.

"GM is one approach but there are so many others that can enhance productivity, so I have a concern as to why we are focused on a technology which is primarily driven by corporations and not by public research and ultimately one where the market has decided for the time being it doesn’t want to see GM produce coming in. I don’t see any market advantage to Scotland adopting it and the difficulty with GM is that it is out there in the environment and not contained in a laboratory setting. The potential spread of genes in to wider ecology is still a concerning issue and we are unsure about what the long-term effects might be."

Rounding up the interview, we turned to the recent increase in veganism in the UK, and Mr Ruskell offered a positive outlook for livestock farmers who could benefit from a market drive away from cheap poor-quality meat to a demand for higher quality produce, which he believes is the direction vegan activists are pushing the public towards.

"I don’t see veganism as a threat to our livestock farmers, the cultural shift that is going on is making people re-evaluate the production of meat, which is good, as people are shifting away from cheap poor-quality produce to demanding high quality meat which they are willing to spend more money on.

"This will lead to a drive away from meat as a low quality commodity and will instead play in to the hands of production in Scotland which is less intensive, grass fed and abides to higher animal welfare standards. If that is the outcome of a vegan debate in Scotland, then it is good for Scottish farmers," he insisted.

"A general cultural shift would be a positive, farmers need to see the direction of travel and what the advantages can be if they are producing high quality meat, as most people will not go to full veganism but will cut high volume cheap meat consumption instead."