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Reflections on #COP26 – view from across the pond

With the eyes of the world focused on Glasgow over the past two weeks, NFU Scotland President Martin Kennedy reflects on COP26 and his participation at the event and global efforts to tackle climate change.

In the second of a series of blogs, Martin discusses the American response and how farmers in the USA may soon be making significant steps to change to more sustainable farming systems. He writes:

“The opportunity to meet with Thomas Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture with the United States Department of Agriculture was one not to be missed.

“It was an ideal opportunity to discuss the concerns of Scottish farmers and crofters on what a free trade agreement with USA could mean for our producers.  

“However, it was equally enlightening to hear views on how the USA proposes to move to more sustainable systems of agriculture in the US.

“While the detail was discussed in private under Chatham House rules, the US Secretary of Agriculture had previously indicated, at a meeting with the European farming union body COPA, his intention to develop a well-funded menu of options alongside American farmers to change the way they produce to climate smart farming that does more for the environment.

I didn’t ask if he had been reading NFU Scotland’s ‘Steps to Change’ policy vision but I should have - https://www.nfus.org.uk/userfiles/images/Policy/Brexit/STEPS%20FOR%20CHANGE%20March%202018%20-%20for%20email.pdf

I was left with the impression that there is clear desire in the USA to help their farming industry build new revenue streams for things that farmers are already doing. They want to support new market opportunities to allow their ‘smaller producers’ to do business directly with consumers.  This would allow smaller farm businesses to be more sustainable and bolster local production systems.  Again, similarities to what we want and what is happening in other countries.

What this highlighted was although we think we are ahead of the game here in Scotland, the reality is others are going down the same route and if we want to be in front, we need to crack on with our policy development or we’ll be left behind. Discussions highlighted that take up of innovation is gathering pace and many farmers in the US are increasingly seeing the benefits of direct drilling in comparison to tillage, and where the use of cover crops was also helping from a soil health point of view.

Labour was a big issue for them, California’s state minimum wage is $15 per hour (higher than the national minimum) with overtime now kicking in at over 40 hours instead of 60.  To put that rate into context, across the border into Mexico and the day rate is $15.  

There was also consensus in our discussion that, in recent times, too much focus has been on production and not nearly enough focus on profitability with the ability to control price sitting with our retailers.

The elephant in the room was the potential for a Free Trade Agreement with the UK.  The sense I got from the meeting is that for the USA, they know we have a significant surplus on our side of the pond, and they have a deficit on their side and they will be looking for any trade deal to cut this difference.  Any trade deal for them that doesn’t address this issue simply won’t be accepted.  

I don’t think they would want to explain to their farmers why they opened up their markets if there was no benefit to them.  Clearly when they approach trade deals they want to get benefit for food and farmers.  And who could blame them.  I only wish our Government was as single minded.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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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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