Q&A: NFUS president Andrew McCornick on Scottish farming prospects

With coronavirus and Brexit uppermost in people’s minds, we ask NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick for his assessment of current agricultural prospects.

What are the biggest threats to Scottish farmers, and how should the sector prepare or respond?

The constant uncertainty is really making running a business and decision-making very difficult. Behind that is a real fear that we as an industry could be traded away in favour of some other industry or service that the politicians deem more important. 

Brexit and other trade deals are also a threat if done wrong, but if done correctly from an agricultural point of view, they may present an opportunity.

All farmers and crofters need to be influencing the decision makers – their MPs primarily – on the absolute importance of their role to the future rural and national economy.

Behind this lies standards, and these are not tradeable. We are expected to meet high safety, traceability, welfare and production standards, by law in many instances. We expect no less from our market competitors.

This level playing field should also extend to the internal market. We need to see common frameworks around which all the nations of the UK work, but with the latitude to progress our own devolved policies that suit our unique circumstances.

Funding and future policy are another massive threat to how our industry goes forward. We need the right policies to make a transition to meet the climate change challenge and yet still be the providers of the high-quality, high-standard food this country deserves.

See also: Find all our Brexit coverage in one place

What would a “no-deal” situation with the EU mean for Scottish agriculture?

The new tariff schedule issued last month has made that a lesser threat than the schedule published on 13 March last year. However, we must recognise that its creation is only a bargaining position.

Scotland needs to have a trade deal in place to allow our industry to be kept in business, in some sectors more than others. Sheepmeat and lamb exports face a real battle if we are not able to find a new market and establish new trade routes.

Most of Scotland is “less favoured area” and is suited best to sheep, and this industry relies heavily on the established routes to Europe.

There is no evidence of any other market standing in the wings, as other countries have already developed them and we as the UK will need to “work” our way in. They may not match our current export volume.

How can Scottish farmers best compete if the Westminster government persists with a free-trade agenda?

We need to ensure a level playing field. There should be no selling out on our environmental, welfare and production methods, or we are simply selling our values to the lowest bidder.

That risks destroying the rural economy and the industries and people that it supports, while encouraging lower standards in other parts of the globe by buying from them.

At a farm level, it is going to be more challenging, with margins wafer-thin or non-existent for many sectors. I do know that farmers will stop spending until they work out where they are. That will result in the wider industry and the economy taking yet another hit.

I believe farmers should be uniting and forming alliances within their sectors, and in the food supply chain.

Given that Scotland did not vote for Brexit, should there be another independence referendum?

I am president of an apolitical organisation and have members on all sides of this discussion. It is not for NFUS to have a view on political issues, but to facilitate an informed debate for our membership.

What are your priorities as the Scottish Agriculture Bill progresses through the Scottish parliament?

We must have a speedy development of future policy. The Scottish government has set some demanding challenges in the Climate Change Bill and in the Food and Drink Ambition for 2030.

To get there, we must see change, yet the policy development is not there for farmers and crofters to plan for the future and play their part.

We need to move on from this bill and deliver beyond the Scottish government’s Stability and Simplicity document of June 2018 which is, in my mind, only a holding position. We need to see policy development at a much speedier pace.

What impact is extreme weather, including the recent dry spell, having on Scottish farmers?

There will be additional costs and there will be additional losses. But I would argue that the many businesses in our society that have had the rug pulled out from below them because of Covid-19 will have significantly bigger issues than farmers and crofters are dealing with because of the weather.

I feel lucky to be farming just now. All those in the foodservice sector, hospitality and tourism must be in a torrid place.

What more could supermarkets do to support Scottish and British lamb and beef producers?

I cannot understand why supermarkets do not make more use of local food, with all the provenance and quality assurances that it has.

We, as NFUS, are constantly in discussion with the retailers on this issue and, with the future targets on climate change, it should be another reason for sourcing local.

There should also be a bigger drive on seasonality of food, to ensure that when local is in season, it is local that is on the shelf. Consumers would then develop a better knowledge of what food is and how it is produced.

Building relationships and supply chains with the industry would also be a way of ensuring that retailers are getting what they want, when they want it.

That needs collaboration with transparency, where everyone acknowledges each other as integral to their individual success, rather than exploitation.

How should we tackle the ongoing problem of sheep worrying and wildlife attacks on flocks?

A campaign, as we are running just now in Scotland, highlighting to those taking access their responsibilities, and ensuring that we make it possible to have that access as safely as possible for them and their pets, but away from vulnerable livestock.

The Emma Harper MSP bill in the Scottish parliament is also important as a deterrent, as it will be more proportionate on penalties for offenders.

We also need to get the public to understand the massive impact that uncontrolled wildlife are having on our livestock.

There are some apex predators that need to be managed, as they are having disproportionate impacts on livestock versus any amenity value that the public perceive that they have.

How can farmers future-proof their businesses post coronavirus?

It is very difficult to offer up answers about future-proofing businesses when we are dealing with so many imponderables all at once, but here is what we are doing at home:

Cost is a big-ticket item that we do have control over. We are in the uncertain world of market returns and support funding, therefore we are scrutinising what we spend and trying to ensure that a “want” does not morph into a “need”.

Planning is based on benchmarking. We are in a group that looks at similar businesses and their performance, and trying to tease out what we are doing worse than others, then shifting or modifying our model. It is about data and using it.

We are trying to be more self-sufficient, breeding our own replacements, growing more and different crops that can extend the grazing season, or offer better utilisation of what we have and improving rotations, meaning less inputs.

We are looking for opportunities and are not wedded to just doing the same thing all the time.

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