SCOTTISH AGRI-POLICY is going in the right direction – and if progress seems slow, that is better than it speeding down the wrong path.

NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy this week spoke up to defend his union's involvement in the Scottish Government's cautious process of farm policy reform, contrasting the emerging positive outcomes for food production in Scotland with England's headlong dash into subsidised park-keeping.

Responding to suggestions that union participation in the Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board had blunted its ability to challenge ScotGov, Mr Kennedy said: "Being on ARIOB doesn’t stop us from being critical – we have been clear on what we need for a long time now; food production and security has to be front and centre of any future policy.

"It must be an agricultural policy first which delivers for the climate and the environment, not the other way round," he stressed. "We have a moral obligation to produce food because we can do it sustainably compared to other places in the world." He conceded that the development of ScotGov's policy had been slow, and that this snail's pace had been a source of frustration: "But I still maintain it is better to be going slowly in the right direction that quickly in the wrong. Look at England, they are going in the wrong direction and quickly."

This week, Mr Kennedy was relieved to welcome the first measure to emerge from ScotGov's £51 million National Test Programme – every Scottish farmer can now claim £500 to help fund an on-farm carbon audit, and once that is done, access more cash for soil analysis.

In the near future, farm support cash will be conditional on farmers providing reliable information on their carbon outputs and soil health, but before that system can be put in place, the whole industry must first begin measuring these essential new performance metrics.

"The measures are a fantastic opportunity to get credit for the carbon in our soils," insisted Mr Kennedy. "We can compare ourselves with the rest of the world and it will show the benefits of Scottish farming. We will get a look at the carbon in our soils and what we are holding and retaining on farm already. And we can get decent information on carbon sequestration in crops and grass."

Suckler beef producers are also being given access to YourHerdStats, a new online tool within the ScotEID system that will present herd management information and highlight opportunities for further improvement.

Announcing these first steps in the NTP, Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “We want Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture and our farmers, crofters and land managers have a crucial role to play in helping us meet our climate emissions and nature restoration targets. We have been clear in our commitment to supporting farmers and crofters to produce more of our food more sustainably which will ultimately help make our food system more resilient."

Ms Gougeon stressed that ScotGov would continue to support active farming and food production with direct payments – but there would be 'enhanced conditionality' regarding carbon and biodiversity.

“Many are already leading the way having carried out carbon audits and soil sampling work but we are offering support to encourage all farmers and crofters to undertake this," she said.

“I want to encourage all eligible people to make a claim once the portal is open and take the next step towards the future of Scottish agriculture. We have made the claims process as simple and straightforward as possible and it can be completed and accessed online. Anyone who requires any support with making a claim should contact their local RPID area office.”

Read more: Carbon audit programme to rollout on NI dairy farms in 2022

Scottish farmers, crofters and agricultural contractors (based in Scotland), can claim for this grant if they are registered for funding with SGRPID, and have a Rural Payments and Services user name and password. The ability to claim for a completed Carbon Audit will be delivered May to early June with the functionality to claim Soil Analysis thereafter.

Mr Kennedy said: “Support for carbon auditing and soil testing will crucially assist nutrient management and drive productivity and efficiency on farms and crofts at a time when all businesses are facing an unprecedented surge in fertiliser prices and looking to use nutrients as efficiently as possible."

“I would urge all farmers and crofters to look at the funding on offer and take up this opportunity that will help highlight the wider benefits of Scottish food production. They offer the opportunity for every business to improve their bottom line. Crucially, it recognises that farmers and crofters are taking their responsibilities around sustainable production seriously, further enhancing the world-wide reputation of our food and drink sector.”

Scottish Land & Estates also welcomed the announcement as a 'step forward' in the development of a new Scottish agriculture policy, but added that more information was needed to ensure that land managers can effectively plan for the longer term.

SLE policy adviser Paul Richardson said: “Our farmer and land manager members are very proactive and keen to continue to be a part of the solution in addressing the challenges facing us on food production, climate change, and biodiversity. They frequently get in touch asking SLE for guidance on what they should be doing now to prepare for the future, and a lack of guidance has made answering that question difficult. This week’s announcement is therefore a positive development, and I encourage all our eligible members to take up the funding offer as soon as possible."