Q&A: Scottish farming minister Fergus Ewing

Fergus Ewing, representing the constituency of Inverness and Nairn, has been appointed as Scotland’s new farming minister during a crucial time for the farming industry. Farmers Weekly pinned him down ahead of the Royal Highland Show.

The debacle over the late delivery of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money has been the dominant factor in Scottish agriculture over the last few months, with some producers still unpaid. How do you intend to rectify this?

The resolution of the CAP problems will not be achieved overnight or by any single or simple set of actions.

However, as I stated recently in a speech to parliament, I will substantially resolve those difficulties and have pledged that this is my first and foremost priority in my new role.

See also: Scottish minister says sorry for BPS payment chaos

What assurances can you give that there will not be a repeat?

In my statement to Scottish parliament last month I promised to make it very clear to the farming industry what we expect the likely timescales for the 2016 payments to really look like.

I will be realistic in this – the industry needs to have confidence in the payment timetable and there must be no repeat of the problems that we faced in 2015-16.

Do you intend taking further action following the Audit Scotland report which detailed a catalogue of failures in the delivery of the BPS IT system, including internal frictions, lack of management, a failure to deal with a conflict of interest and a cost which rose from £102m to £178m?

The Scottish government accepts the Audit Scotland report and is carefully considering the recommendations.

We will learn lessons from the Futures programme, not just for the remainder of that programme, but for the Scottish government’s wider portfolio of IT programmes.

More details will follow in due course and I plan to update the parliament in the autumn. However, the focus right now remains 100% on getting payments out to farmers and crofters well ahead of the EU’s 15 October deadline.

How confident are you that all 2015 payments will be made in time to avoid a potential fine from the European Commission of up to £125m?

My three key objectives are: to complete the 2015 payments so that farmers get their money as soon as possible; to deliver compliance and minimise any financial penalties; and to place 2016 payments on a proper footing.

So far 87% of farmers have received their first instalment payments, based on estimated payment rates per hectare – which amounts to 15,600 out of an estimated eligible population of over 18,000.

I am absolutely confident that everything possible is being done to meet the new deadline.

The Royal Society has said the ban on GM crops should be reassessed. Why are the scientists wrong?

The Scottish government has the utmost respect for the views of the scientific community.

As we have said before, the Scottish government has taken a longstanding precautionary approach to GM and our decision to use the EU’s opt-out provisions is not one based on scientific considerations but rather one taken to protect the clean, green image of Scotland’s £14bn food and drink sector.

This is a sector which is witnessing continued growth in domestic and export markets, without growing GM crops.

Rural crime is costing the Scottish countryside nearly £2m a year, according to NFU Mutual. What can you do to help clamp down on this?

All crime is at a record 40-year low, thanks to the excellent collaborative enforcement and preventative work of Police Scotland and other partners. However, no parts of Scotland are immune to crime; all communities have their challenges.

Crime is a big issue in rural Scotland and can cost communities around £1.9m a year. The theft of agricultural machinery, vehicles, tools, livestock and fuel can have a massive impact on individuals and communities.

That’s why last year a national partnership with Police Scotland was launched to reduce crime in rural areas by targeting offenders and enhancing crime prevention efforts.

A guide was published by Police Scotland that acts as an excellent tool towards improving security in the rural environment and offering detailed advice on crime prevention.

Following the controversial manner in which new land reforms were pushed through, many lairds no longer trust SNP ministers. How are you going to rebuild that trust?

Land reform is part and parcel of the Scottish government’s ambitions for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland.

The Land Reform Bill was taken through in the last parliament after extensive consideration and consultation with key stakeholders, including the Land Reform Review Group and the Agricultural Holdings Legislations Review Group, and it was vital to take the opportunity to take forward many of the recommendations made by these groups in the last parliamentary term.

The Bill process provoked intense debate at every stage from introduction, through detailed committee and public scrutiny and right up to the final debate on 16 March when the Scottish parliament passed the Bill.

The Bill received Royal Assent on 22 April and going forward it’s in the best interests of all of us to do what we can to make the most of the opportunities it provides.

How do you intend to address the decline in the dairy sector?

Scotland has some of the most productive dairy farms in the world – with prime pasture and innovative, progressive producers.

However, they are having to endure a sustained period of low farmgate prices because of a combination of factors – many of which are globally-derived. While the government cannot intervene directly in the market, we are on the front foot with a range of initiatives aimed at boosting resilience at this difficult time.

These include supporting the Dairy Growth Board and its efforts to market our world-famous cheeses; the online Dairy Hub – increasingly seen as the “go to” source for impartial advice and support; progressing the Dairy Action Plan.

There are issues surrounding supermarket price wars and I want to see retailers competing over the fairest deal for farmers, rather than who can devalue milk the most.

I will continue to work with supermarkets to encourage fair pricing and support for the sector.

We are also actively supporting local sourcing and working with the sector on an industry-led working group that will consider what further work can be done to help our hard-pressed dairy farmers. I expect more details on this important initiative to be announced soon.

You intend to legislate for a more testing target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. How will you ensure that this does not have a significant impact on farmers?

My aim is to drive forward the rural economy, building on its inherent strengths and seizing opportunities, but all in a way that is sustainable for current and future rural communities.

One of the biggest threats to our social and economic ambitions comes from climate change, which is why the Scottish government has worked to make Scotland a world leader with ambitious emissions reduction targets and strong progress to date.

Agriculture produces almost a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gases, but it also suffers from the impacts of a changing climate – many farmers across Scotland were hit badly by extreme flooding recently, and we face new disease threats, such as bluetongue, while existing pests, such as liver fluke, spread across the country. Climate change presents a huge danger to the rural economy.

The key to reducing emissions from agriculture is efficiency – efficient use of fertilisers, reducing losses in livestock and making best use of on-farm resources, such as manures and slurries, are all important. Many farmers are making money while reducing their emissions.

For example, Robert and Jac Neill at Upper Nisbet saved over £19,000 a year while reducing their carbon footprint by 19%, and we have made the lessons they learned available for every farmer through our Farming For a Better Climate programme.

We are already working closely with industry to produce a new package of measures to reduce emissions further. I believe there are real opportunities for rural communities in the low-carbon economy and our focus will be on how we can capitalise on that for the benefit of both the environment and the economy.

What personal experience do you have of the farming industry?

I have represented a largely rural constituency for 17 years at Holyrood. In that time, I have sought to support the local rural economy and now am delighted to have the chance to drive it forward as cabinet secretary.

My aim is to grow the rural economy sustainably, so rural communities thrive, for the benefit of everyone who lives and works there, and indeed for the benefit of Scotland as a whole.

Where do you see Scotland’s farming industry in 20 years?

Scotland’s farming industry will be innovative, profitable and sustainable. It will be outward-looking and resilient, supporting Scotland’s economic growth, environment and communities.

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