President Martin Kennedy’s address to AgriScot 2022

NFU Scotland President Martin Kennedy addressing AgriScot 2022 held at Ingliston on 16 November.

Thank you Chair, Good afternoon, Cabinet secretary, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First of all, to Chair Robert Neill, congratulations on getting AgriScot back on track and hosting such a fantastic and extremely busy event. It is plain to see that the farming community is keen to get out and about again and to see what is on offer from the industry’s supply chain. 

And that is where our concerns are, it is not just with the primary producer it is actually with all those businesses here today that depend on a thriving profitable primary sector still producing a critical mass of product that is required to maintain the viability of businesses both upstream and downstream of agricultural activity.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is now time for a reset, a reset in the way we prioritise what is important in life. The world has changed and the focus on food security has never been as high since the second world war, it once again is being talked about at COP 27 in Egypt, even more so than in Glasgow last year. Food security is also at the top of the agenda for the G20 in Bali, and yet we still have those in power, and by in power I mean Governments, supermarkets and some extreme key board warriors who cannot grasp the seriousness of the situation. Right now, there is an agenda of ideology that is impacting heavily on our ability to feed ourselves. Yesterday the world population hit eight billion people, a rise of one billion in only 11 years. With reduced labour and export problems still being an issue as a result of Brexit, and the increased costs on energy, feed and fertiliser, many businesses have already decided to contract. If this continues, the implications on not only the economy but also on food security will be stark.

I fully recognise the cost-of-living crisis is affecting everyone and it is even harder on those with lower incomes. However, the most recent figures show that there is still only 14% of disposable income spent on food and although that is a considerable rise from about 10% two years ago it is still around 5% lower than the likes of France and keeps us near the bottom on the world table. We talk about food waste and the fact we waste a third of it. The only reason we waste it is because we do not value it. 

We all know that we need to do more when it comes to climate change and biodiversity, that’s a given and we are keen to play our part but if we are not careful and do not keep food production front and centre of future policy, hence the reason we had our rally two weeks ago we will be in danger of undermining our ability to produce the most important energy source of all. This will only lead to more imports that will do nothing for climate change and the environment and will undermine our own jobs, businesses, and rural economy.

Cabinet secretary, I am still keen to work with you in developing a future policy that is fit for Scotland, but as your predecessor said the best way for an industry to go in a new direction is to let the industry lead on it. It is pleasing to hear you say recently that you are taking on board many of the recommendations of the farmer led groups, my only frustration is the Scottish Government did not listen to the industry 4 years ago. In 2018 NFU Scotland’s proposals looked to address both climate change and the environment whilst keeping active agriculture at the forefront. These proposals are every bit as relevant now as they were then, we could have been started. 

Investing in agriculture will deliver on so many fronts, I understand that budgets and finances are tight but if we want to maintain our ability to feed ourselves and continue to take care of our environment then we must continue to invest wisely in active farming and crofting. Even with continued investment it will still remain challenging as sometimes our hands are tied behind our backs. All too often decisions are made by people who do not understand the unintended consequences. 

The UK government’s track record on post Brexit trade deals is a classic example of this. We warned for months about the threats to farming from the Australian and New Zealand deal and they did not listen. On Monday, the former Defra secretary George Eustice highlighted these deals as a failure and there was no need to give away so much. This highlights why it is so important to listen to the industry.

It was the same with the decision not to implement post Brexit import checks. Unbelievable considering twenty-one out of twenty-two lorries checked recently had illegal meat on board, including 2.5t of pork. If ever there was an easy route in for African Swine Fever, then this is it, as if the pig sector had not suffered enough. I would urge you Cabinet secretary to up the pressure on the UK government to address this. I wonder what would happen if the ball were on the other foot, actually I don’t wonder I know, our products would simply be banned.

On the other side, the UK government now want to have an attestation signed by a vet before animals can go for export, this is not an EU requirement, at the moment a farmer declaration is absolutely sufficient. If this comes in on the 13th of December, there just is not enough vets to even do this on time. This affects practically every livestock farmer because most of our fifth quarter is exported to Europe or at least through Europe. It is incredible that at a time when we fully open our doors to God knows what to come in without being checked and putting our consumers and livestock health at risk, we have to jump and pay for more regulation, who’s side are they on. Again, cabinet secretary you must put greater pressure on Defra to drop this needless regulation or it will cause massive issues for our meat processors and our farmers who have the best traceability there is to offer.

On the point of traceability, we wrote to you as a collective industry via the bovine EID stakeholder group which I chair back in the spring, and we are still waiting for a response. This move to mandate a UHF tag to be in place in all calves born after 1st Jan 2024 is a positive move and will deliver real time data to further the interests of animal welfare and traceability. It will of course also allow for the end of paper passports which itself will bring a huge cost saving and also avoid a third point of reconciliation at inspection. This is something the Scottish government should legislate for as soon as possible which would be in everyone’s interest. 

Earlier I mentioned the unintended consequences of decisions being made, one that concerns me greatly is the Scottish government’s fair work policy which includes a proposal to implement the voluntary real living wage in Agriculture. I am not for one second saying we should not be paying a fair wage, the facts are quite the contrary, in many cases we are paying well over minimum wages to hold on to good workers. The problem is in agriculture the wages board already recommends rates to be implemented by the wages order, but these minimum rates are the same for all ages down to sixteen. This is already a disincentive to take on younger people given the time and training involved. And if it went even further and implemented the real living wage then our ability to encourage the next generation into the sector will be eradicated. 

Given the fact labour costs amount to 60% of production for the soft fruit sector, implementing the real living wage will completely decimate a sector that is already disadvantaged by a different wage structure south of the border. This is a sector worth well over £100m to the economy. The only way the real living wage would work is if the supply chain supported that through product returns but given that we are price takers and are at the mercy of the big players, that is not likely to happen soon. 

Cabinet secretary you must intervene here as a matter of urgency or risk losing completely a sector worth so much to our economy.

Right now, our poultry sector is suffering to the extent shelves are already becoming empty. Yes, AI is a problem but nationally that only accounts for around 3% of reduction, the remaining 20% reduction is down to lack of returns to the producer. This needs to change or we simply will not have a viable poultry industry. Fairness in the supply chain has been talked about for a long time but talk is not good enough, we need to see this happen soon or right across all sectors we will see massive reduction in production.

I must reiterate the concerns of all our members on the scale of tree planting that is currently going on in Scotland, last year 83% of the total UK planting happened in Scotland. I do not buy the argument that only 0.2% of this was done on prime agricultural land, the reality is there is more prime agricultural land taken out with development. The real issue is the upland productive land that is ideally suited to livestock production that is getting planted that not only affects our critical mass but also denies opportunities for the next generation to get a foot on the farming ladder. The most galling thing is the fact that many of these areas are planted for offsetting emissions of industries who are doing nothing to address their own emission reduction. This must stop, we cannot continue to push people off the land who have been integral to rural communities. We need to have policies in place that allows for integration of trees and farming. 

Good grazing management delivers on biodiversity, carbon sequestration, local economy, rural communities, and food production. Let us not forget these cumulative benefits as opposed to maybe only one sometimes foreign financier benefiting.

Future policy in Scotland will not be the answer to all our problems but whatever is ultimately decided will send a clear message to the industry of the Scottish governments commitment to the rural economy. As I said I am more than happy to continue to work with the Scottish Government on any issue relating to farming and crofting provided our views and experience is taken seriously.

Whatever happens in the future as a result of world politics or climate events, there will always be the need for food production and that is best carried out by those who have generations of experience, not those who have a short time in decision making posts then move on when the going gets tough and leave us as the only long term constant to once again pick up the pieces.

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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