President Martin Kennedy address to AgriScot 2023

Good morning, Cabinet Secretary, Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is no doubt AgriScot, as the second biggest Agricultural event in the calendar is still growing from strength to strength and the buzz that’s here is plain for everyone to see.

It goes without saying that the importance of Agriculture to the Scottish economy is vital and events like this emphasise just how important it is to have a vibrant industry that’s willing to reinvest in their businesses which inevitably delivers so much for the wider economy. 

Farmers and crofters throughout Scotland are the backbone of our rural communities and are desperately in need of long-term certainty, not only in terms of direction of travel on what exactly we are being asked to do, but also, every bit as important, what financial support will underpin the industry over the long term. It was good to see the recent publication of the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill which we certainly welcomed and we will continue to work with you Cabinet secretary to make sure as you promised there would be no cliff edge for the industry as this framework bill passes through the parliament and the detail of the secondary legislation emerges.

Some people have questioned the fact that Rural Communities are mentioned on the face of this bill, however it goes without saying that if you don’t have a vibrant agricultural industry then not only do rural communities simply fall apart, but you also lose the ability to incentivise the next generation to get involved. The next generation are so important to our industry we must do everything we can to continue to support them. We had a great initiative in the starter farm project that has now floundered on more than one front. 

We now have families who have built up businesses and a home and have nowhere to go after their extension has run out, and we also have no more opportunities for new starter farms to get up and running. I ask you Cabinet secretary to look at this again in more detail, I have talked about this before and also raised it with Mairi McAllan. We could have a starter farm system that allows a new entrant to set up a business and remain there on a rolling MLDT or similar, unless another bigger opportunity came about, only then would they have to vacate. Glen Prosen is surely a fantastic opportunity to rethink the whole starter farm project. I would like to extend an invite to you Mairi to come out to Mark Donald’s starter farm near Stirling to discuss the issue.

As an industry, like many others, we are being asked to do more. This is recognised and many farmers and crofters have already engaged in agricultural practice that’s in the best interest of both climate and nature. However, this isn’t new, and although we accept there is more to do, it has always been in our interest to farm sustainably and look after our soils which is our biggest carbon sink, indeed the vast majority of the soil carbon stocks we have is in our soils. 

But all too often we are being asked to do more with our hands tied behind our backs. Now is the right time to have a real look at the regulation that’s not only holding back business and the economy but it’s also having a real detrimental impact on both the environment and our ability to produce local high-quality food which is surely at the heart of the Good Food Nation Act and Plan.

The recent flooding issues have highlighted the need to change the current regulations around two very controversial subjects. River management and species Management. Looking at river management first, the generational experience of those who have lived and worked beside rivers on flood plains must be listened to. 

I’m grateful Mairi to you and others from your team for coming out fairly quickly on site to look at the damage first hand and understand the scale of the problem. I thank you for your announcement of financial help this morning and we’re happy to work with you to steer that support in the right direction. However, I also must say that much of this could have been avoided had we been carrying out routine river management as we used to do in the past. 

Up to around 30 years ago, right across the country, we would regularly remove gravel and silt from strategic pinch points on our rivers. That river management was always seen as routine maintenance, and in many cases, the material removed was either replaced in the flood banks or indeed recycled for another use which made perfect sense.

Not only did this protect high value crops, but it helped enormously in protecting towns and villages from flooding. This was, of course, at no cost to the taxpayer. 

What we are seeing now as a result of mismanagement or indeed no management is larger gravel bars and islands appearing in many rivers causing much greater erosion and flood bank breaches. This is not only a threat to land and crops but also a threat to wider property, roads and infrastructure. 

The double whammy we are also seeing is where serious damage has been caused through no fault of the farmer, they not only have a considerable cost to pay to get this rectified, they also have a registration license to pay of at least £782.00 This adds real insult to injury, and I would ask that as a result of storms like we have suffered, these charges are removed.

Of course this issue has been exacerbated by the illegal release of Beavers and despite the promises from previous Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham for Beavers not compromising productive land and to fully fund mitigation (which has not happened), here we are in a position where this is now costing the industry and government millions of pounds, hence the reason we have asked for this now to be fully compensated for.

As you know Cabinet Secretary, I also raised this river management issue with the First Minister recently and highlighted the fact that we could be a massive part of the solution if the regulation stopping us carrying out this routine maintenance was reviewed. I am more than happy to work with you and your team on this and indeed the need to further review the regulations around species management covering other species such as Sea Eagles and Badgers.

The pain our industry is suffering as a result of an exponential increase in species with no natural predator is not only having a negative financial impact on our farmers and crofters, but also wrongly shifting a lot of the blame for the demise of biodiversity towards agriculture itself. We know for a fact that the increased population of these species are having a detrimental impact on the wider environment. It also compromises Scottish Government’s own vision of having vibrant rural communities as many will be forced off the land due to this predation. We’ve just seen recently with the decision on Humane cable restraints whereby the accurate evidence given to committee was completely ignored and the decision made without proper scrutiny of the evidence.

As you know, I am still seriously concerned about the Bute House Agreement, Ironically, through lack of understanding, many parts of the green agenda are turning out to be the biggest threat to our environment and rural communities. 

That said Mairi, I appreciate your support and your recognition of how important our industry is on so many fronts, I also very much appreciate the fact that we have some continuity in terms of the cabinet secretary representing Rural Affairs. You are only the fourth in 24 years of devolution, that’s quite a comparison to having ten DEFRA secretaries of state in the last eleven years, and four in the last 14 months alone. Agriculture is a long-term industry, and we need continuity of representation to fully understand all what food production delivers.  Whilst funding and management is important, we must focus on market returns.  

So now on to food production itself, the absolute core of what we do. As an industry we are extremely proud of what we produce and how we produce it, sadly when it comes to generating a return for producing our food to the standards we are asked to, it doesn’t stack up, then when the price rises, many of our retailers drop us like a hot tattie and import product from other parts of the world where they’re not bothered about standards. 

So Mairi, I would like to ask for your support in a legislative change to labelling. Labelling has been a topic of conversation for as long as I can remember but sadly has never really been addressed to the extent it benefits our ability to keep producing food profitably and locally. 

We constantly see our own produce, which has been raised and grown to some of the highest standards, being undermined by imports that we know for a fact do not meet our standards of production, both in terms of growing standards and the treatment of labour involved. 

We now have a fantastic opportunity to address this through the Good Food Nation Act whereby undisputed transparency of where our food comes from will allow our consumers to make a real informed choice. We often highlight that most people buy on price, which may be the case in many situations but as was highlighted when lock down happened in 2020, we saw products coming in from overseas that was destined for the food service sector, end up on our retailers’ shelves. Our consumers showed real loyalty to our products and in many instances chose not to buy them as they were clearly labelled from overseas which normally would never have been noticed. 

This idea would involve a very simple label in red which would need to be a minimum of 5% of the size of the packaging which simply said;


This would need to be U.K. wide as doing it from a Scotland only basis would never work. One of the biggest advantages of this simple labelling message is it would also apply to food service as this would be required to be on the menu, which given the fact a third of our consumption is in food service would make a considerable difference. 

The reason you would set this at 50% is because we all accept, we are nowhere close to self-sufficiency, and we cannot grow all our own ingredients so some must be imported. 

This I’m sure could be a real game changer in terms of supporting our own food producers and stopping any dodgy dealings that not only put our economy at risk but also seriously compromise the biosecurity of all our crops and livestock. 

From a Scottish point of view, with the good food nation act in place, this will highlight how seriously our retailer’s rhetoric of supporting local really is. This would also call out the retailers and food service throughout the U.K. to act on their promises rather than just talk about it. 

Given Rishi Sunak’s commitment at the Farm to Fork summit in May to clearly focus more on home production, this would show whether he meant it or was just paying lip service. 

What must be clear is we are not asking our consumers not to buy products with this label on it, it’s purely giving them full transparency for their decision on what degree they want to support home grown food. 

My view is our consumers want to support local and far too often they are hoodwinked into thinking they are, but sadly with co-mingling and dodgy labelling they are not. If our retailers and food service push back on this, then what are they trying to hide?

This gives us a real opportunity to call out our retailers if they don’t support this idea. I also think given the recent issue with Red Tractor, this is now the opportunity to say, hang on, before we commit to anymore environmental actions that supposedly our consumers are demanding, let’s see where your commitment is in supporting home production first. Then we can talk about doing more. It’s high time retailers jumped through some hoops for us for a change. In no way would this label compromise any of the current assurance logos, which would remain unchanged, this is purely about clearly informing our consumers if it’s home grown or not. 

Cabinet Secretary, I am asking you for your support on this initiative to allow us to continue growing food to the standards we have become accustomed to and allow us to fully inform our consumers of what they are purchasing. I firmly believe that this is where we could see governments and industry working together like never before. 

This would then deliver on both the vision for Scottish Government and indeed NFU Scotland’s vision of delivering a profitable and sustainable agricultural industry.

Thank you. 

Author: Martin Kennedy

Date Published:

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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