UK Government Minister for Scotland, Malcolm Offord, has written this for the Scottish Farmer:

There’s an old Highland joke that says a croft is ‘a small piece of land entirely surrounded by vast acres of paperwork’.

Perhaps those in rural land management feel the same way about every piece of land! At Scottish Land and Estates’ 2023 conference, in Edinburgh, I spoke about this issue.

I told delegates the complexity which surrounds land serves to underscore the importance of the rural environment, of which farmers and factors, smallholders, landowners and tenants, are custodians and guardians.

The UK Government is clear the land is a precious resource. It is much more than merely the green bits in between towns and villages.

It is to be protected and nurtured so that it can continue – as it has done for centuries – to provide the supporting framework for rural communities, sustaining them with good jobs, just as its rich harvests sustain the British people.

However, we face unprecedented challenges as climate issues bite and as we emerge from the long shadows of the Covid pandemic, just as Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine drives up the cost of living across the globe.

Yet the story of rural people is one of fortitude and of innovation, of overcoming and not just surviving – but thriving.

Science can come to our aid here. Precision breeding techniques, such as gene editing, can help us enhance climate resilience in crops. We can create plants better able to handle more rain, or less; more warmth, or more cold.

Precision breeding allows us to create beneficial traits in plants that through traditional breeding would take decades to achieve. This enables scientists to safely create foods that are more flexible, adaptable and plentiful for years to come.

Scotland is again the trailblazer. In Dundee, the James Hutton Institute is leading the way with technology that can help British land managers and in the struggle to support a burgeoning global population.

The UK Government, via our ground-breaking 'Growth Deal' programme, has injected £45m into the JHI Advanced Plant Growth Centre and Advanced Barley Hub. The latter should ensure a bright future for malting barley, essential to Scotland’s biggest export – whisky.

Yet there is an issue – the Scottish Government's reluctance to join with the UK in promoting these scientific advances via the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act.

Given that agriculture is devolved to Holyrood, the UK Government hoped to persuade the Scottish Government to work with us on precision breeding.

We wanted to ensure that farmers in Scotland are not left looking over the hedge, so to speak, as others enjoy the commercial advantage of enhanced seed and plants. However, Holyrood took a different approach, by not backing the Bill.

While respecting Holyrood, it seems nonsensical for those in agriculture, horticulture and land management to operate in isolation – looking inward, oblivious to best practice just a few miles distant.

I believe the creation of Holyrood was intended to give Scotland the advantage of having two governments – one in Edinburgh, one in Westminster – working in harness for the betterment of all our communities.

To make that work, we need a spirit of joint endeavour, not entrenched and outdated dogma. Gene editing is the future and Scotland must not be left behind.

We will continue to seek common ground with the Scottish Government and I am sure we can count on vociferous support from across the agricultural sector.

Achieving Net Zero in rural Scotland was another pivotal issue at the Scottish Land and Estates’ Conference.

The UK Government grasps that ‘one size fits all’ is not the case here. Urban areas strive to have everything people need within a 20-minute round trip.

Clearly, when it might take you that long just to get to your nearest bus stop or post box, it is not viable rurally. Again, science can help carry rural communities towards our binding Net Zero commitments.

Electric vehicles are growing in range and this year the UK Government – in conjunction with independent energy regulator Ofcom – published our Electric Vehicle Smart Charging Action Plan, helping motorists charge in the cleanest and cheapest way possible, whether in big cities or small villages.

Although transport is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the UK Government has worked with remote and rural communities to support infrastructure projects via 'Levelling Up' funding, the flagship policy which offers direct support to projects which local people have identified as key.

For example, Levelling Up Fund Round Two saw Shetland Islands Council awarded nearly £27m for a roll-on, roll-off, Fair Isle ferry – described as a lifeline for an island community which otherwise would have succumbed to that curse of the remote and rural, depopulation.

Physical connection is important, but we are alive too to digital connectivity. It is essential to today’s businesses as the internet opens global markets, and to everyday life where a faint mobile phone signal can lock you out of day-to-day banking.

We are strengthening digital connectivity and coverage in rural areas in part via the Shared Rural Network, a world-leading £1bn deal that will see both public and private investment in a network of new and existing phone masts across the UK.

Scotland, with its unique geography, currently has some of the lowest mobile network coverage in the UK.

All of the SRN’s ‘not-spots’ funding allocation – around £310m – will also be spent in Scotland to provide coverage in communities where there are currently no mobile phone service providers.

Ensuring more equitable and reliable access to mobile networks across Scottish communities will mean that more rural businesses will be able to provide services digitally, which in turn will help support local economies and all-important job creation.

Because that is what the Levelling Up is all about.

Talent is spread right across the country, while opportunity is not. People will always want to move to new horizons, but moving away from home, particularly if home is in rural Scotland, ought to be a choice and not an economic necessity.

In 2019, the Conservatives pledged to maintain the current £2.4bn annual budget for farmers in every year of this parliament. The Government is meeting that commitment by providing a flat cash rollover of the 2019 Common Agricultural Policy ceilings.

The funding is ring-fenced to be spent on farmers and land managers and offers certainty to 2024. For 2024 to 2025, funding will be set out at the next spending review.

Scotland and Wales also receive Bew Review uplifts, additional funding that addresses historic underfunding. The current total funding, then, for Scottish farming from the UK Treasury is £620m every year.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has set five key goals for his Government. They are to halve inflation, grow the economy, drive down national debt, to tackle NHS waiting lists and stop the people traffickers’ small boats.

Two are of particular relevance. Inflation is no respecter of geography or status. It eats away at household and business budgets wherever, and whoever, you are.

Our desire to grow our economy is of vital importance for rural Scotland. A bigger economy means healthier businesses, more jobs, and more prosperity, from the Mull of Galloway to Saxa Vord on Shetland, from Soay to Peterhead.

Rural Scotland is a powerhouse, and it is one the UK Government is striving to support.