'Scotland is blessed with an abundance of land in relation to its population, land which can largely only be farmed with livestock. We have a wealth of farming knowledge, generational history, and experience to draw on, and preserving this expertise for future generations is essential

Neil Shand is CEO of the National Beef Association, previously being Breed Secretary/CEO of the British Simmental Cattle Society,

One of the advantages of representing a national organisation is having both the ability and the opportunity to view cross-border issues from a neutral standpoint. While devolution has worked well in many areas of local and national government, the advantages in other areas are much harder to identify.

One of the areas where some distinct disadvantages have become all too apparent since Covid is food security. In mid-2020, almost 85% of the UK’s population lived in England, although England accounts for only 54% of the land mass. It, therefore, follows that the UK’s most populous country is - as it has always been - the obvious destination for beef produced in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. For the UK as a whole, this is the most sensible and climate conscious option, not just for food security in England, but for job security in the remaining home countries.

Unfortunately, political infighting means that no one seems to be able to see the proverbial wood for the trees unless, of course, it’s their own trees. Devolved governments appear to be hellbent on reducing their climate targets despite the adverse effect this will likely have on the UK targets as a whole. This is a well-trodden soapbox for me.

Political parties in Scotland are in limbo - the rural vote accounts for a vital percentage of the electorate. If the SNP had any sort of cohesive and sensible agricultural policy, they could easily be on a one-way ticket to independence; by the same token, the opposition parties could possibly thwart it for good. Either way, it seems ridiculous that we are this far down the Brexit road, and Scotland is still far from clear on how her future agricultural support will shape itself.

Another area of comparison across borders is the differences between QMS and AHDB, both of whom have indicated a desire for an increase in the cost of the levy - the compulsory payment made on every animal that goes to slaughter. AHDB collects the levy both from English cattle and from Scottish-born cattle slaughtered in England, returning the Scottish levy to the country of birth of the original animal.

This money funds the organisation and promotion of beef in England and overseas, and searches for new markets. QMS does the same in Scotland, with the added challenge that it is also the body that looks after farm assurance. Leaving aside the farm assurance aspect for the moment, the two boards have used different tactics to advise their future strategies

We live in a country where recent ‘yes or no’ votes have had deep and life changing significance. AHDB’s ‘Shape the Future’ survey appears to have learned from past experience, and provided farmers with an open forum in which to voice their ideas as to where their levy money should be invested.

The response to the survey was positive; highlighted areas such as reputation, marketing, exports, insight, and evidence were all identified as future areas to build on. The survey – in particular the way in which it was conducted - has further enhanced AHDB's reputation following its reorganisation; farmers feel more confident that their hard-earned money is being well-spent on their behalf.

Confidence in the AHDB brand is high, and this somewhat eases the pathway for their plans for a £1.05 increase in the levy, ensuring farmer and organisational support. Whilst a levy increase of 25% looks steep, relative to the increase in carcass value in the last three or four years it’s not insurmountable. It’s over a decade since the last increase, and from a producer's perspective, the total cost of just over £5 per carcass is relatively small in terms of the promotional capability that this buys.

QMS on the other hand, have their work cut out. Their five-year strategy, announced at the Highland Show, was disappointing, to say the least. For me, the five-year plan lacked detail and conviction, and the general direction seemed perhaps not off the map, but maybe a little lost.

Their recent announcement that they will travel the country and consult with levy payers is welcome, although I can’t help feeling that the phrase ‘better late than never’ should be attached as a proviso! There continues to be a call from some producers for QMS to promote a ‘big push’ for beef sales in Scotland.

This seems to be a pointless exercise – Scotland produces much more beef than it needs, and with exports in excess of 60%, it would make much more sense to concentrate funding in this area.

First and foremost, the reputation of our industry is invaluable and must be protected. Thereafter, QMS’s biggest goals should be domestic markets (in this case I’m referring to England) followed by export markets. Historically, the English market was respected and valued to a greater degree than it currently appears to be - perhaps as a result of devolution and other agendas. QMS’s own report published back in August shows that Scottish abattoir output of beef for the rest of the UK dropped from 71% in 2016 to 68% by 2021.

There is certainly potential to regain that market. The same report also detailed a drop in Scottish abattoir output for beef destined for the rest of the world from 7% to 6%; clear evidence that export markets should be the number one priority. A comparison could and should be made to how the Irish operate; like Scotland, they are hugely over self-sufficient in beef production, but their marketing strategies are aggressive, clever, and successful. This is what Scottish producers should expect from QMS.

It often appears that QMS is a little too close to government – perhaps even a little controlled - but they could – and should - learn from AHDB and their survey. I dare say that a similar survey in Scotland would be unlikely to demonstrate anything different than the one conducted by AHDB.

As it stands at the moment, the proposed increase in levy by AHDB is quite easily stomached – even justified - but not so that of QMS. There is a vast amount of work to be done by QMS on their future strategy to convince me that they will be spending their money in the right places, and I'm still at a loss to explain the initial publication of a five year strategy followed by the consultation.

It makes no sense. I had a meeting with senior QMS officials in September. Following this, I raised written concerns with regard to the five-year strategy and the direction it intended to take.

I made several suggestions that would protect the interests of beef producers, ensuring them more value for their hard-earned money and greater security for their future. To date, I have had no reply. I’ll leave this with an interesting twist. Should the levy increase not be approved in Scotland, AHDB will only be liable to repatriate the value of the Scottish levy, subsequently allowing them to make money from Scottish born cattle. As a proud Scot, I feel it’s in everyone’s interest to back our levy body, but moving forward, it’s essential that QMS provide a framework we can stand behind.

As for food security and self-sufficiency, at the risk of banging the same old drum the ability of the UK to feed ourselves is not an optional choice, it’s a necessity. Devolution is a two-sided coin. On one side, its effects are beneficial, allowing targeted governing and effective management.

On the obverse, it leads to infighting for political gain and an inability to see the bigger picture; it’s every man – or country – for itself. The UK as a whole works because it is diverse; what one country cannot provide, the others can, an ethos which unfortunately doesn’t necessarily fit into devolution in its current form.

Scotland is blessed with an abundance of land in relation to its population, land which can largely only be farmed with livestock. We have a wealth of farming knowledge, generational history, and experience to draw on, and preserving this expertise for future generations is essential. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.