The Scottish Farmer:

Colin Smyth MSP for the South of Scotland and spokesman on the rural economy, connectivity and transport for the Scottish Labour Party

ONE YEAR to go until the UK formally leaves the EU and Brexit fever has well and truly taken hold, with questions surrounding the future of the rural economy coming very much to the fore of political negotiations in Westminster. 

Whether it’s discussions over the return of powers in agricultural policy to the UK Government, a continuation of the Common Fisheries Policy post Brexit, or new agreements over seasonal migrant workers’ rights, one thing is for sure, politicians have had a rude awakening to the fact that the rural economy is both a valuable and vulnerable player in the Brexit game. 

One man who is demanding answers for his constituency in the South of Scotland is Colin Smyth, MSP for Scottish Labour. Meeting with The Scottish Farmer during a visit to Shambellie House in Dumfries, he explained that more needs to be done to put in place both Pillar One and Pillar Two certainties post Brexit, and noted that the D and G area benefits hugely from SRDP funding under that second pillar. 

Mr Smyth also insisted that Labour offers a strong voice for the rural economy, and said that he will campaign to make farming more profitable, in order to maintain and attract a workforce in to the industry. 

In December, he took over from Rhoda Grant as the Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for the rural economy, connectivity and transport, following a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet. Now, 100 days into his new role, I asked Colin why he is the right person to lead on rural policy for Labour and why he first stood as an MSP in the 2016 Scottish elections for the South of Scotland.

“It has been a real learning curve as my role covers many areas, not just the rural economy but right across to transport. I’m passionate about rural Scotland and I stood for parliament in 2016 as I believe so many rural parts of Scotland such as the south of the country are often forgotten about, with a huge amount of focus on the central belt. 

“I wanted to increase the profile of the South of Scotland which face huge challenges with poverty, youth unemployment and issues around skills. There are massive issues to tackle in rural areas and I believe I’m the right person for the job to be a voice for not only the South of Scotland but for the wider rural economy,” stated Mr Smyth. 

The Labour party has not traditionally received a lot of support from farmers, often seen as more of an urban party. I asked Mr Smyth why farmers should vote for Scottish Labour and whether this stereotype is changing?

“I think often there has been a perception that rural Scotland is wealthy and that issues of poverty lie in urban Scotland,” he responded. “This is a wrong perception, as figures for fuel poverty have demonstrated that some rural parts of Scotland such as Shetland and Orkney have pensioner households where 80% are living in fuel poverty. These are the sorts of issues Labour wants to tackle and these I believe fall in line with priorities in rural Scotland. 

“If you look at issues around farming, there is a fall in farming income, the cost of farming has gone up but the income farmers receive for their labour has gone down. This is due to a shift in the balance of power in agriculture – big businesses and supermarkets are holding the power and producers on the ground have less and less of a voice. We want to stand up for small producers in the face of big business and I want to send a clear message that Labour will be a voice for rural Scotland,” stressed Mr Smyth. 

The Labour party has always promoted itself as a champion of tackling low paid jobs and high unemployment figures. Looking at the agriculture sector where the perception can often be that rural careers are low skilled and undervalued, Mr Smyth made it clear that tackling low farm incomes and widening the curriculum to focus on rural opportunities is needed to attract new people in to the sector. 

“One of the key concerns we need to tackle are the issues around farm incomes. Unless we can make farming profitable then we will continue to see people leave the industry and the low incomes will not attract new farmers in to the field. There is also a need to get young people involved in leaning about and experiencing farming from a young age. Curriculum of excellence farm visits are so important as people can see what happens in their backyard and feel more connected to the food production process. 

The Scottish Farmer:

Colin, at the Dairy Research Centre at Crichton Royal Farm, Dumfries

“Technology is advancing and as a result there is a demand for high skilled labour within the rural economy and this will only increase as technology develops further. I understand that the current curriculum in schools is under great pressure to accommodate new courses but there needs to be flexibility in shaping the curriculum to reflect what is important to the local area. Here in D and G, almost one third of the business base is agriculture, forestry and fishing – three times the rest of Scotland. This shows a clear need to focus on strengths locally and school and colleges could do more to alter their curriculum to reflect this.”

At the recent Scottish Labour conference in Dundee, Mr Smyth facilitated a fringe event along with NFUS, to look at the future of the rural sector and to discuss the future good food nation bill. I asked him to expand on the meeting with NFUS and what can be expected from the good food nation bill? 

“The event was a great opportunity to work alongside NFUS to discuss the challenges and opportunities with Brexit, focusing particularly on what the future of rural support will look like for Scotland. There are plenty of farmers who are politicians championing farming in parliament, but they need to get that message across to other MSPs, so by NFUS engaging with us on farming, we were able to widen our reach to the public about the importance of the rural economy.

“In other parts of the discussion we looked at the good food nation bill and how our food and drink industry is worth £14.4 billion million pounds to Scotland’s economy. We must be clear to the public that the whole role of agriculture is to provide affordable food for communities and there is a huge need to strengthen supply chains and reward farmers for their hard work. 

“I spoke to one farmer who was affected by the recent ‘Beast from the East’ and couldn’t get his milk collected. He ended up having to pour it into his slurry pit. Yet there was a local shop, less than a mile walk away with empty shelves. This is a clear example of how we need to change the supply chain, so we have more local produce – we need to set targets for local procurement, to take advantage of local grown and reared produce. It was just crazy to think you couldn’t buy a pint of milk in a local shop where there were hundreds of farms producing milk surrounding it,” he said.

It was recently announced that several EU powers returning from Brussels within the area of agriculture are to be reserved to the UK Government. Protecting the Scottish brand is key to the future of Scotland’s booming food and drinks industry, who pride themselves on provenance and the GI labelling that comes with it. I asked Colin if food labelling powers and other important areas of legislation are to be reserved to the UK, how this could impact on our Scottish brand and export industry in Scotland?

“It will be a massive problem for Scottish agriculture if we do not see those powers returning to the Scottish parliament. Agriculture and fishing is devolved currently and I think the UK Government have made a huge mistake failing to amend legislation to make sure it happens automatically.

"We operate a very different environment here in Scotland, 17% of CAP funding comes to Scotland to serve 8% of the UK population and there are very good reasons for that, around the nature of agriculture in Scotland. We should be making those decisions on the ground where they will have the most impact,” said Mr Smyth.

Keeping in line with Scotland’s food and drinks industry, one export in particular – Scotch Whisky – has made a worldwide impact on the global market. As a member of the cross-party group for Scottish Whisky in parliament, I put it to Colin that, given that the majority of Scottish whisky is produced from imported grain, should we not be switching to using Scottish grain?

“I think it would strengthen the Scottish whisky product and I will always support local produce where possible. There is a whisky distillery looking to open in Ayr who are making a point of trying to get as much of the product as possible produced locally. They are also hoping to link up with Robert Burns, not only building the distillery on a farm he had farmed but growing the barley there, creating a great local story and selling point for the future whisky brand. 

“People do have to accept that not everything can be produced here, as there is not enough product to meet demand, but if we can look to increase the production of Scottish wheat, then it will also serve to boost the local economy,” stated Mr Smyth.

With a year to go until we leave the EU, I asked Colin how his views on Brexit might have changed and if given the opportunity would he take another vote in an EU referendum.

The Scottish Farmer:

Scottish Farmer reporter Claire Taylor met with Colin Smyth at Shambellie House in Dumfries

“I would love to see us remain as part of the EU and campaigned passionately for the Remain campaign. I do not believe there is such a thing as a soft Brexit, so the most important thing now is damage limitation.

"I’d prefer if we remained part of the single market for the future of the agriculture sector but fear we are about to fall off a cliff, with an economic impact which will be felt for decades to come. If there was an EU referendum tomorrow I would still vote to remain as a member of the EU,” stressed Mr Smyth.

Depicting rather a doom and gloom picture of the future to come, I challenged Mr Smyth as to whether it was time that politicians at least tried to unify more positively about Brexit and focus on some of the opportunities it would entail. Failing this, he went on to tell me what he believes needs to happen to minimise the impact of Brexit on agriculture in Scotland. 

“It’s not as such about remaining positive but getting to grips with the challenges we are going to face. Yes, it is not good news, but we need to make sure we do our best to minimise the impacts. 

“We need to be clear on what support there will be for agriculture post CAP.

"We need to make sure freedom of movement continues for our workforce.

"This is key for agriculture not only in low skilled jobs such as fruit picking but in highly skilled roles such as vets in abattoirs, where we rely heavily on the EU. There also needs to be tariff free trade with the rest of Europe, to allow our producers to remain at a competitive price and see a return for their efforts,” he said. 

Maintaining strict animal welfare standards is a constant debate in negotiating new deals following our exit from the EU. Colin praised the current high standards in the UK and the necessity of maintaining them such, which is why he would lend his voice to supporting a potential ban on the live export of animals to slaughter. 

“We have a good animal welfare regime here in the UK and we should do nothing to reduce that when we leave the EU. There is no way Scottish agriculture will ever compete on the basis of a low-quality product. Issues around a ban on live animal exportation to slaughter is an area which I believe needs to be explored, I personally sympathise, as I do not see the need to export purely for slaughter purposes. 

“What is important is that as policy develops, we recognise the challenges we have in Scottish agriculture such as animals having to travel from the islands to the mainland to be finished. My real concern lies with exporting out of the UK – if you are passionate about maintaining and protecting high animal welfare standards, you shouldn’t export animals to countries who don’t adhere to these same strict standards, or else you undermine your own principles.”

There is currently a ban on GM in Scotland but many farmers are in favour of lifting the ban in order to produce more food and save costs. I asked Colin whether he would lift the ban?

“I wouldn’t lift it immediately as there is still a debate to be had and the science around it to be explored more fully. There is also a lot to be said about perception, and here in Scotland we have the image of natural beauty, unspoilt, and anything that could damage that brand, such as GM, would be bad for Scottish agriculture. At the moment, the strength of our Scottish brand is that of natural beauty and the high quality we produce, and that’s a reputation we need to retain,” stressed Mr Smyth.

The Scottish Farmer:

Mr Smyth hosted a fringe group on Scottish Agriculture at the recent Labour Party Conference in Dundee and was joined by NFUS representatives Jonnie Hall, Andrew McCornick and Clare Slipper

Large predators are a constant concern for farmers and talk of lynx reintroduction is a major one. 

Foxes also cause huge concern and detriment to livestock farmers – hasn’t the legislation restricting fox hunting deepened this problem?

“I support a ban on hunting with hounds. I think the legislation that came in in 2002 has too many loopholes and people are abusing them. There is evidence out there that the aim to flush out foxes with hounds and then shoot them is being abused. Foxes are often being chased by packs of hounds and rather than being shot, they are being killed by the hounds,” he claimed. 

“Scottish law needs to be brought into line with the rest of the UK. In England there is a limit of two dogs to flush out a fox, which is something I think should be brought in here. 

“There is also the perception of rural Scotland – and here in Dumfries and Galloway, the countryside is a wonderful asset, with the tourism industry bringing in £300 million pounds a year, generating 7000 jobs – why would we want to tarnish that image to visitors by promoting something the vast majority of people think should be confined to the history books,” asked Mr Smyth.

This week marks one year till we leave the EU – with that in mind and with one year of negotiations to go, what are the absolute priorities the Government should be focusing on to ensure a sustainable future for the rural economy? 

“First of all, making sure we secure barrier free trade is crucial to the agricultural industry. We have to ensure freedom of movement for our future workforce otherwise we simply won’t fill many of our low and high skilled roles. There needs to be a clearer debate on the long-term alternative to CAP, not just regarding Pillar One payments but Pillar Two also. The Leader programme for example which falls under Pillar Two, here in Dumfries and Galloway, injects £5.5 million in to rural development. We must ensure replacements for these vital programmes. 

“We must make sure we are not reducing types of regulation around animal welfare. We cannot have a race to bottom when it comes to workers rights and animal welfare. We can’t compete on a global level on a low-cost product, we compete with high quality products, which means maintaining these standards,” said Mr Smyth.

Concluding the interview, I asked Mr Smyth for his thoughts on the growing wave of veganism.

“I have a lot of respect for people who make that choice, but it’s not a choice I have made. If people are deciding to go vegan because of concerns over farming and how it’s developed, the best way to deal with it is to reassure people about those concerns and explain the high level of animal welfare that we have in Scotland,” finished Mr Smyth.

The interview took place at Shambellie House, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland’s former National Costume museum. 

When National Museums Scotland took the decision to close it, fearing the impact on the economy, local residents came together to explore possible new uses and are currently developing plans to create a centre for day and residential courses and workshops, building on the areas strengths.