FUTURE FARMING policy must be ‘determined and delivered’ by farmers, not the Scottish Government or the civil service.

This message came from the SNP’s Fergus Ewing during NFU Scotland’s parliamentary hustings event, which invited the rural spokespeople of the five major political parties to put forward their priorities for the future of Scottish agriculture ahead of the upcoming Holyrood election.

In his opening address, Mr Ewing took the opportunity to quell rising concerns that the work of farmer-led groups is being ignored: “Future policy post 2024 must be determined by farmers…not by myself or civil servants but by yourselves, with an implementation board, working with all stakeholders, but with farmers at the centre of advising and delivering a new Scottish built system for continuing excellence in food production and farming in our country.”

The Scottish Greens' candidate Mags Hall called on the Scottish Government to fast track the delivery of this new support system: “The Scottish Government’s current 'stability and simplicity' strategy is about maintaining a now defunct version of the CAP for the years ahead, but everyone including the EU has moved on and Scotland is now lagging behind. The next parliament needs to fast track delivery of a new agricultural support system, one in which climate change and biodiversity are no longer just ‘nice to haves’ but core objectives.”

Catriona Bhatia of the Scottish Liberal Democrats agreed that a future system must reward environmental goods but mustn’t add new levels of bureaucracy: “Farmers are there to farm, they are not there to be continually filling out forms and databases. They are constantly having to account for everything they do. We need to have a reasonable and rational approach to this, to make sure people are not overwhelmed by new levels of bureaucracy.”

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist’s Jamie Halcro Johnston pledged to set out a blueprint for the future of farming support in the first 100 days of the next parliament, stating that this will give farmers and crofters time to adjust rather than waiting till 2024.

Candidates were asked whether they believe livestock numbers should be cut back to help reduce carbon emissions. Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant replied: “It is now commonly recognised that grass is better as a carbon sink than trees so actually taking animals off the land is going to be damaging to our carbon sequestration,” adding that a fall in numbers will have a domino impact on the likes of abattoirs, which she said could close shop and animals would have to travel longer for slaughter.

Mr Halcro Johnston warned that reducing numbers would result in a double edge sword: “All we would be doing is seeing demand being met by other countries," which he claimed would not be to the same standard.

The Green's Ms Hall outlined her party’s proposal to establish a local food development fund to help improve local food supply chains and reduce food miles, and to set up producer led cooperatives to help local farmers supply their produce directly into the hospitality sector. She then went on to address poor facilities in rural areas: “Our councils have been chronically under resourced. We need to fast track funding to deliver more local and appropriate tourist facilities, so people aren’t automatically going on to farms. We need to direct the public where to go so farmers aren’t having to be the ones cleaning up the mess.”

Mr Halcro Johnston reported that the cost of rural crime has doubled over the past few years and flagged instances of flytipping where action hasn’t been taken due to resources being stretched: “We certainly want to see tougher penalties and we want to support local authorities to prosecute those involved in the likes of flytipping," he said.

Ms Bhatia highlighted her concerns around rural policing numbers: “We don’t have the same levels of rural policing that we used to have and certainly don’t have the same local knowledge within local police forces since Police Scotland was centralised.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats want to establish a restoration fund which will utilise proceeds of convicted rural criminals to alleviate costs facing farmers, but she added that the solution has to lie with education: “There is not enough rural education in urban schools so when people visit the countryside they don’t know how to behave.”

This viewpoint was shared by all five spokespeople who agreed to back calls for agriculture, food, and farming to be introduced into the national curriculum.

Mr Ewing called for more to be done in persuading the panel on climate change to recognise the contribution of permanent grassland in sequestering carbon. Responding to concerns that forestry targets are threatening good farming land, Mr Ewing stressed that arable land is protected already

“Farming, forestry and field sports are staple parts of the rural economy. There needs to be a better balance, we all have to work together. Farmers can and do benefit from forestry. Agroforestry can provide shelter belts for animals, flood prevention and diversification opportunities.

“I will build on our recently announced farming and crofter scheme where for those who cannot afford the initial capital outlay, there will be a 50% grant available to defray the costs of planting, fencing and so on.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have committed to planting 36 million trees to help with carbon reduction. Pressed on whether good farming land could risk being turned over to trees, Ms Bhatia called on urban areas to step up to the mark: “To be frank, our urban friends and relatives need to pull their weight on tree planting. In our urban areas, you can’t see the trees for the houses, gardens are beautifully manicured. There is not enough incentive or education on how we can maximise biodiversity within towns and cities rather than saying all of this has to be done in our rural areas.”

Scottish Labour's Ms Grant went on to address concerns around protected species such as the White-Tailed Eagle, which members of NFUS have reported issues with for a number of years, due to their predation on sheep flocks on the west coast: “I’m all for protecting species,” she said, “but when you protect a species to the detriment of something else then there are issues there. With the White-Tailed Eagles, there was no management plan in place, not enough wildlife to feed them."

Commenting on potential future species introduction she added: “We have to say how are we going to manage this, what numbers can we sustain and how can we compensate those who are damaged by it, and that has to be done ahead of time and needs to be monitored.”

The Scottish Greens have outlined in their manifesto support for a lynx reintroduction trial here in Scotland, despite warnings from farmers of the devastation this could pose to sheep flocks.

Turning to gene editing, Mr Ewing reaffirmed the SNP’s position in favour of a GM free Scotland, but acknowledged the difference between GM and gene editing: “We shouldn’t shut our ears or eyes to scientific advancement which is taking forward matters which could beneficial to us."

Ms Grant argued that it would be ‘silly’ to rule our gene editing technologies but stressed that Scotland would need be careful not to compromise its reputation for high quality food: “If the difference is looking at this and looking at chemicals, which are causing more harm, gene editing is speeding up something which would happen with breeding eventually. We need to be open to this and use it to put an end to world hunger.”

The Scottish Greens issued a word of warning over gene editing technologies: “There are some really fundamental questions around the patenting and ownership of the basic tools of agriculture and our food system. We don’t always see this in Scotland but it has a massive impact in the global south and developing nations and we need to be showing solidarity with farming communities around the world."

Mr Halcro Johnston concluded by arguing that Scotland needs to be led by the science on adopting gene editing technologies: “There are so many challenges we face going forward in terms of food production, in terms of finding new ways of increasing produce but also dealing with pests and making crops more hardy. If we have an opportunity to do that then we all need to support that. Food production has to be key going forward.”