By Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing

FARMERS and food producers are the heart of our rural communities. They manage and protect our countryside, produce high quality food and are a key part of any solution to climate change.

With the UK Government threatening to walk away from the negotiating table in the summer, it is absolutely vital that we have the necessary mechanisms in place to continue to support farmers and food producers as far as possible.

It is therefore disappointing that the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy committee has again chosen to largely ignore the work and approach already being undertaken here in Scotland.

It is simply not true that we have not brought forward any plans for what future post-Brexit rural policy in Scotland will look like.

Nearly three years ago, we published Stability and Simplicity. It proposed a transition period to 2024 where support schemes for active farming, food production, environmental improvements, forestry and rural development fundamentally stay largely the same.

Listening to farmers, where schemes and processes can usefully be simplified and streamlined, we would look to do so, particularly if that frees up resource to test new, innovative approaches and measures.

Looking beyond 2024, we are currently listening to farmers, food producers and other stakeholders about their opinions and desires for the future. This is being coordinated through the group set up with a mandate from Parliament to inform future policy on farming and food production. This is more than any other part of the UK has done.

So while I understand the clamour for a long-term vision post-2024, it is important to understand that developing and implementing new support systems and policy takes time. And it takes time to get it right. And it takes time to administer and get it working from day one.

Farmers recognise this. In my conversations with them over the last three years they have repeatedly told me that they do not want wholesale change at a time when they simply do not know what the future holds after the end of this year.

This brings me to my final point. It is simply not possible, nor prudent, to devise a brand new policy and support structure when there remain so many unknowns. What is our future trade relationship with the EU going to be? What tariffs and non-tariff barriers will our farmers and food producers face? Will the UK Government sell out our farmers chasing a trade deal with the US that opens our markets to cheap imports that fail to meet our standards? How will the Northern Ireland Protocol work in practice?

Until we have answers to those questions, we should focus on providing as much stability as we can, while also simplifying the aspects of CAP which will make an immediate difference to farmers and crofters. That also creates the space we need to try new approaches and ideas, not least to ensure farming and food production contributes to our climate change targets.

So while I will consider carefully the committee’s Stage 1 report, I will take forward the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill provides the tools and the framework to do just that and I hope that everyone will get behind it and focus on what it does deliver, rather than what it doesn’t, to give farmers and food producers the certainty and clarity they currently need.