From 2025, the climate and biodiversity performance of agricultural businesses will determine the level of agricultural support payments they receive, the Scottish Government has stated.

But some of Scotland's farmers and crofters will help find the best way towards this re-shaped national agri-policy by taking part in a newly announced National Test Programme, beginning next spring, with up to £51 million of investment over the following three years.

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ScotGov has promised that the Programme will 'support and encourage' farmers and crofters to learn about how their work impacts on climate and nature, including offering financial support to carry out carbon audits and nutrient management plans, establishing a clear baseline and options for action for all who participate.

Through work with a focus group of farmers and crofters, the Programme will also help set out how sustainable farming should be supported and rewarded in future, to ensure the right tools and support are in place when agricultural support payments become entirely tied to considerations of climate and biodiversity.

The creation of this National Test Programme was made a priority with the establishment of the Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (ARIOB) earlier this year, which was instructed to use the work and recommendations of the Farmer Led Groups as its foundation.

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Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon outlined the Programme as she addressed the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland's autumn conference, where she also set out the Scottish Government’s vision for the future of agriculture in Scotland – and paid credit to the many farmers who are already taking action to address the climate and nature crises.

“The key to change, to succeeding in doing so, is by working together, listening and learning along the way," Ms Gougeon told the assembled farmers. "You have played such a key role in our past and you are vital to our future. We will not successfully address the twin crises of climate change and nature without you.

“We are embarking on a journey of transformation. There will be challenges on the way, there are risks, and there will be tough decisions to be made by us all, but there are also huge opportunities if we want to make them and take them.

“We can be global leaders in sustainable agriculture – we can set the global benchmark for what regenerative agriculture actually means," she declared.

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“We will produce more of our food more sustainably, we will deliver climate mitigation and adaptation, we will restore nature and protect and enhance biodiversity, and our success will mean we get to pass to future generations, a land, a climate and a country that works for their benefit and for the benefit of the whole planet.”

The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that Scottish Government does not support policies that promote reducing livestock numbers and that support payment rates will be maintained throughout the transition.

Welcoming the announcement, NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy, who co-chairs the ARIOB said: “I thank the Cabinet Secretary for reiterating her firm commitment that there will be absolutely no policy whatsoever to reduce livestock numbers in Scotland. One of the reasons I agreed to sit on the ARIOB was to make sure this did not happen, so finally putting that to bed is important.

“I welcome the £51m package to assist the industry in defining a baseline of where we are at present on individual farms and crofts. This will not only give us an individual picture of where we are starting from, it will also give us a national picture which will confirm that we are already starting from a good place in Scotland. This baselining will also inform the decisions we need to make in the future which in turn will showcase Scottish food production as being a major part of the solution to climate change and biodiversity, not the problem."

But Mr Kennedy added: “I am still seriously disappointed that we do not have either a top up to the existing calf scheme or indeed a separate calf scheme payment to allow the beef sector to move earlier, given its willingness to address some of the issues it is facing. I am of the belief that beef could have led the way had there been the political will to do so.

“That said, taking this whole industry approach was always going to be the next stage and we cannot wait any longer.  The whole industry needs to know what is coming down the track and this is beginning to show that sense of direction for all sectors. 

“I am pleased as co-chair of ARIOB, that a clear steer on direction has been found and will be implemented, building on the excellent work and recommendations carried out by the Climate Change Farmer Led Groups. I and others on the ARIOB will be determined to hold Scottish government to account by delivering the next stages in developing the longer-term policy that I know we are all desperate to see.”