Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 11:09 am on 6th February 2003.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 11:09 am, 6th February 2003

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3856, in the name of Robin Harper, on the general principles of the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill. I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Robin Harper to speak to and move the motion. Mr Harper, you have 10 minutes. We will have to be tight on timings in the debate.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 11:18 am, 6th February 2003

It is with great pleasure that I invite the Parliament to approve the general principles of the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill. This small but beautiful bill could make a considerable contribution to organic farming in Scotland and to a healthy future for our economy and environment. It would create many jobs, produce healthy food, reduce pesticide input, restore soil fertility and encourage an abundance of wildlife.

When I first lodged a proposal for a bill in February 2000—more than three years ago—I was enormously encouraged by the cross-party response. Thirty-eight members signed up, and had it not been for the cut-off time of a month, it might have gathered even more signatures. Certainly, it was the most-subscribed-to proposal for a member's bill in the Parliament until the high hedges outgrew us, so to speak.

I wish to express my gratitude to all those who had an input to the bill. I thank the Rural Development Committee, its clerks and its convener Alex Fergusson for the constructive way in which they addressed stage 1. The committee took evidence from a wide range of interests; not all were supportive, although I hasten to add that the great majority were. I also thank the dozen witnesses who gave evidence in person and the 33 people and organisations that submitted written evidence. Thanks are also due to the Transport and the Environment Committee and, most important, to the non-Executive bills unit, particularly David Cullum and Rodger Evans, who assisted greatly.

The impetus for the bill derived from a packed meeting, which took place in the committee chambers over three years ago, with more than 70 stakeholders from conventional and organic farming interests throughout Scotland. The steering group for the bill subsequently assembled and then undertook an extensive written public consultation in early 2001. The proposal was modified as a result of that consultation.

The bill, which was finally introduced on 30 September 2002, is short and straightforward. According to its long title—the word "long" is a misnomer in this case—the bill requires the Scottish ministers to set organic farming targets, to produce a plan for achieving those targets and to report annually to the Scottish Parliament on progress.

I will give members a flavour of the range of support for the bill outside the Parliament. Those who consider the bill a good thing include the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Asda, the Transport and General Workers Union Scotland, the Scottish Agricultural College, the Socialist Environment and Resources Association Scotland, Sainsbury's, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Unison, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Soil Association, RSPB Scotland, the Co-operative Group and the Crofters Commission. A further 71 organisations and, as I am sure that members know from their in-trays and inboxes, hundreds of individuals support the bill. Perhaps I could add Mr McConnell to that list, as I understand from no less an authority than the august Sunday Herald that our First Minister is an enthusiast for all things organic.

Paragraph 34 of the Rural Development Committee's stage 1 report on the bill quotes a written submission from the Highlands and Islands Organic Association that nicely captures the ethos of organic farming and the essence of my bill. The quotation might also provide a sense that my bill is not merely about targets and action plans—it is much more than that. The submission said:

"Organic food production is not just about less chemicals and more manure, it is about a new relationship between farmers, working with consumers and other local organisations to put the 'culture' back into agriculture. Statutory targets are the important headline that will make this happen, and farmers are the people who will make it work."

I suggest that public debate has moved on since the 1980s and 1990s and that the question whether organic farming is desirable has been replaced by the question of how organic production can be increased sustainably. My bill seeks to address that.

I welcome the Rural Development Committee's statement that its members want a vigorous organic sector that is supported fairly. I welcome the committee's conviction that targets should be set for increasing organic production and that those targets should form part of an action plan, which must be produced to stimulate an increase.

However, I was a little disappointed by the committee's scepticism about including targets in the bill. I will elaborate on my approach and why I took it. The principle of setting targets is important because it provides a tangible, quantifiable and useful approach. To put it simply, targets are things to aim for. The target is our destination; the action plan is the means of getting there—the map. It would not be sensible to have one without the other.

Wales has set a 10 per cent target for 2005. England has set an organic import substitution target for 2010. Targets have also been set in Europe. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark deploy targets in a legislative framework. The use of targets in UK legislation is not new. I refer members to statutes on school standards, national policing, utilities and local government and I even refer them to one of my favourite statutes—the Environment Act 1995. All those statutes use targets.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I recognise Robin Harper's work and I am genuinely listening to him. He knows that I have supported what he is doing. It would help if he explained how statutory targets and non-statutory targets can be enforced differently.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

My speech will cover that.

The nature and size of the targets in the bill troubled the Rural Development Committee. I told the committee that I would be prepared to consider the matter further if necessary. I am more than happy to repeat the offer to revisit the matter at stage 2 and to refine the bill by amendment.

The bill is not only about targets. Of equal importance are the requirements that the next three Executives should consult on and produce a plan of action that sets out how they intend to meet the targets and that they should report to the Parliament each year for the next 10 years on progress that has been made. The bill requires that long-term, strategic approach, which would encourage confidence in the industry, ensure consistency in policy and help to make things happen locally and nationally.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

All of us have seen the courteous letters that were exchanged between Robin Harper and the Minister for Environment and Rural Development. I have difficulty in understanding why the Executive cannot work with and help the member to amend and develop his bill. In that way, the bill could be passed and could achieve the desired results. Robin Harper and the Executive seem to have the same aims. Even at this stage, is he prepared to adopt that co-operative approach? If so, the document that the Executive released this week could enhance what he is trying to do.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Mike Russell virtually took the words out of my mouth. He evinced the same concerns as I have and enunciated the way forward that the Executive could have accepted some time ago but has still not accepted. I hope that it does that before 5 o'clock.

Through the approach that I described, the bill could start to bring organic farming into the main stream of our economy, to ensure that Scotland is not left behind the rest of the UK, where action plans have been put in place, and to give the market, processors and farmers the confidence to invest.

I have been asked how a target for something that the Executive cannot control could be imposed on the Executive. My response will begin to answer Pauline McNeill's question. Of course the Executive cannot control production, but it can and should encourage it. It cannot by fiat make farmers convert to organic farming—that is not the bill's intention—any more than it can make people consume organic products. However, the Executive can encourage organic farming. It has as many powers at its disposal as has any Government that has gone down the route that I propose.

In his letter to me and fellow MSPs this morning, Ross Finnie said that it was not right to set statutory targets that were binding on the Executive over activities that the Executive could not control. I reiterate to the minister that no target in the bill is binding on ministers. If targets are not reached, there is no penalty other than being shamed before Parliament during the 10-year period for not doing enough. The bill binds ministers not to achieve targets but to take action towards the achievement of targets.

Any target—whether statutory or non-statutory—can be aspirational only. That is how the bill was drafted by the non-Executive bills unit, in accordance with our policy, and that is its meaning. It will be a tragedy for the organic sector if the minister does not understand that point and the bill falls as a result. If that is the main reason for the minister's opposition to the bill, I ask him carefully to consider it in the hours before decision time. MSPs must be advised of the bill's true implications before they vote on it.

It is clear from the Swedish organic sector that increasing organic production helps market development. More production leads to more stable availability, and availability is significant. Availability encourages new marketing initiatives, as people see a good product with good continuity of supply and realise that they could market it. Processing industries then dare to invest in expansion, and increasing production also reduces the disadvantage of small volumes in the distribution chain.

I will have to skip some of my speech because of the time limit on speeches.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I am pleased that, two days ago, the Executive published the "Organic Action Plan" with targets. The uncharitable might view that as an attempt to head off the bill and to placate MSPs who want to vote for it this evening. I could see the plan as a further move towards the constructive politics that was shown by the success of last week's unamended motion on land value taxation.

The Executive's plan is far from perfect. It contains a commitment to consider a range of options for supporting the organic sector, but it is weak. However, Scotland has an opportunity today to build on the Executive's first steps if members support the general principles of the bill, and that is what I ask them to do. Only a secure, 10-year framework with the Parliament's backing will facilitate stability and investment in the organic sector, which will enable it to make progress.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 11:29 am, 6th February 2003

I welcome the debate on how best to support sustainable development in the Scottish organic sector. I make it clear that the Executive does not regard the subject for debate to be whether people are for or against organic farming or whether they are for or against giving organic farming support or succour.

It is regrettable that the debate is on the rather narrower issue of the appropriate or inappropriate use of legislation and statutory powers and targets as the best way of achieving aims that I think are supported by a majority of members all round the chamber, if not unanimously.

I welcome Robin Harper's very constructive letter of last night. I recognise where he is trying to get to. Given the time scale, I sought to respond to his letter as quickly as I could, although I recognise that my response was not the one that he was looking for.

Regrettably—and separately from any commitment to organic development—the Executive does not support the bill. Along with the Rural Development Committee and the huge majority of people who contributed to its deliberations, we support—as everyone has heard—the development of a sustainable organic sector in Scotland. It was interesting, however, to note the voices who told the Rural Development Committee that setting statutory targets was not necessarily the way to promote sustainable development.

The Rural Development Committee did not support the bill's approach of setting statutory targets. There are two fundamental reasons why neither the Executive nor, I suspect, the Rural Development Committee supported that approach. First, we do not believe that it is right to set statutory targets, no matter how loosely they are framed, unless they will have some effect. There seems to be no point in passing legislation through the Parliament if it is just to provide general guidance. If it is not to be more than general guidance, why commit it to statute? Why confuse the purpose of a statutory resource?

Whatever encouragement and support we give to the development of the Scottish organic sector, the rate of conversion of land to organic status will be fundamentally determined by whether farmers believe that they can make a profit from that market. It is simply bad lawmaking to make the Scottish Executive statutorily responsible for targets that are not within its control. The argument applies no matter what level of statutory targets is set.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I accept the point that the minister makes, but will he accept that another important argument is about affordability? Does he accept that the Executive will never increase the uptake of organic produce by people who simply cannot afford to buy it until the Executive takes a lead in encouraging organic produce to be more affordable to those who wish to buy it? That can be done only if there is more production so that people are more able to access the product.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

With all due respect, I am not arguing against that. I wholly support that view. I merely said that it is wrong to suggest that the Executive can set some sort of legislative framework to achieve that.

Robin Harper kindly alluded to a number of areas in which the Executive has set targets. Members should look at the list: every one of those targets relates to a publicly controlled body over which we have levers. We can influence how the targets can be achieved because we have the levers to do so.

Secondly, we do not believe that the attainment of the targets that are set out in Robin Harper's bill is necessarily the best way forward. We have to work with the various fragments and segments of the industry and, if we were to set an arbitrary target in legislation, we could promote the wrong segment of the organic industry, which could result in a mismatch between production and demand. It is not for the Executive to second-guess the market.

However, I would rather not spend my limited time this morning saying what we do not support. I would much rather spend the remainder of my time saying what we do support. I want to say what the Executive will do, in collaboration with the industry, to help to deliver what I believe is also Robin Harper's vision of a prosperous and successful organic sector.

Earlier this week, I published the "Organic Action Plan", which sets out the Executive's aspirational targets for the organic sector and actions to attain those aspirations. The plan was framed in collaboration with a wide range of those who are active in the sector.

We believe that the Scottish organic sector has the potential to displace the dominance of imported organic products on our shelves. The Executive and the industry want to see Scottish organic products meet at least 70 per cent of the market demand for those products that can be sourced from Scotland. We want to see a doubling of the organically farmed area of good-quality agricultural land in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I want to raise a point with the minister that I raised in my intervention on Robin Harper. It is very difficult for private members to introduce bills. Despite the help of the non-Executive bills unit, it is a long tortuous process. When members' bills come to the chamber, ministers tend to say that the bills are badly drafted or that they are not going to achieve their targets.

Would it not have been possible for the Executive to have supported Robin Harper in the development of the bill so that the bill could have reflected the work not only of the leader of the Scottish Green Party but of the Executive and the whole chamber? Why was a publication sprung on us this week? Was it to take the wind out of Robin Harper's sails?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr Russell, your question was rather long-winded.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I think that I got the essential point.

The fundamental issue is that the Executive works with stakeholders to produce all sorts of plans. Our agricultural strategy, for example, was drawn up largely by stakeholders. We did not, however, commit it to statute, although many people in the industry look for more statutory support. The debate today is not an argument between Robin Harper and me about the need for greater commitment and development of the organic industry.

I do not believe that Parliament should set statutory frameworks to do that. The industry has to decide what it will do, although it is clear that Government has a role to play. I hope that the "Organic Action Plan" and other documents in which we have set out the Executive's strategic framework show the sense of leadership and direction that is necessary from the Executive.

Ultimately, however, it is the market that has to decide how much, where, when and what segment of organic farming to promote—the individual farmer has to take that view.

The great problem that we have in Scotland is that, over time, we have to wean the rest of farming in Scotland off subsidy and direction. It is entirely inconsistent to say that we should have greater statutory control when the general agreement across the whole of the industry is that that is not the right direction to take. The standards that are contained in the action plan are the ones that I want to set and achieve.

The action plan sets out important ways in which the Executive can better support the organic sector's attainment of those aspirations. As I announced, we will consult on a package of measures that will include better payment rates for organic conversion. We will also consult on support for the capital costs that are associated with organic conversion and the various ways in which we can offer continuing support for the environmental benefits of organic farming after the initial conversion period.

On the marketing side, the action plan includes prioritisation of organic projects for grant assistance and support for the development of Scottish organic branding. We are commissioning ambitious research to help the development of the organic sector. We have accepted the challenge in the bill for the Executive to report annually on the delivery of its action plan and we will use that opportunity to make sure that, year by year, we support the organic sector as effectively as possible.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that, in conjunction with the industry, the Executive is wholly committed to promoting, developing and assisting a sustainable organic sector in Scotland. The Executive is also committed to achieving a doubling of the organically farmed area and to Scottish products meeting at least 70 per cent of the market demand for organic products.

Having set those principles in place, I reiterate that we are opposed to the concept that some loose targeted arrangement should be enshrined in statute. Even in the words of Robin Harper, it would appear that to do so would have no effect, would be unenforceable and would not add up to anything worthy of the name of legislation. On those narrow grounds alone, I am opposed to the bill.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 11:38 am, 6th February 2003

First, I congratulate Robin Harper on producing a bill that has already had a considerable impact on the Executive's approach to organic farming sector, as we have seen with the publication this week of its "Organic Action Plan".

Few can doubt the value of organic farming to the environment. After all, organic farming is an ecological production system that promotes and enhances biodiversity and relies on minimal off-farm inputs from chemical—often synthetic—pesticides and fertilisers. Organic farming can help to keep our air, soil and water as well as our food supply free of potentially toxic chemicals.

It is obvious that less evidence is available as to the benefits for human health. Can anyone doubt, however, that using fewer synthetic chemicals and antibiotics and replacing them with naturally derived wastes and products can be anything but good for the health of the nation?

If we are agreed that organic farming is good for the environment and for human health, the question arises how best to grow the sector while ensuring that the consumer and the market are in sync. Crucially, how can we ensure that farmers are in a position to convert to organic farming with a reasonable degree of certainty about future income and profit levels? Obviously, the coming reform of the common agricultural policy could prove a distinct advantage if things are played right in that respect. However, as the minister said, most farmers will make a judgment on whether to convert to organic farming by considering the bottom line on the balance sheet. There may be a marked increase in the amount of land in organic production only when the incentives and market conditions are in place from which the majority of hard-headed farmers can see financial benefits.

On the bill's specific requirements, the setting of the arbitrary target of 20 per cent has caused most concern—I think that Robin Harper recognises that. To introduce targets arbitrarily without appropriate alteration to funding mechanisms and policy levers could cause much more damage rather than produce the benefits that good targets might have been expected to deliver. A representative of the Scottish Organic Producers Association told the committee:

"From the outset, we in SOPA have been supportive of the bill and many concepts in it. However, if I put on my practical farming hat and think about the setting of targets, two words spring to mind: 'commercial' and 'suicide'."—[Official Report, Rural Development Committee, 3 December 2002; c 3862.]

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I will do so, but I first want to say something to qualify what I have just said. It would be preferable for targets to be introduced through, for example, an affirmative statutory instrument procedure and there is no reason why the bill could not be amended to achieve that. That would be a reasonable position for the Executive to take, given the offers that Robin Harper has already made in that respect.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does the member accept that the SOPA representative later conceded that he was speaking for himself rather than for SOPA when he said what the member quoted?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

That is true—I accept that entirely. I do not think that we should not have targets or that there cannot be targets, but the issue is how to achieve them and how to ensure that they are in balance with the other programmes. I have mentioned a weakness of the bill, but with amendments at stage 2, the bill could be made eminently workable.

Whether there is a targets approach or an action plan produced by the Executive in a panic in response to Robin Harper's bill, things will come to nothing unless we learn from the experiences of our European Community partners. Countries such as Austria and Denmark have led the way in converting to organic farming. Long ago, they recognised that targets, action plans and incentives on their own would not result in the changes that are required. They recognised that a Government-backed statutory national organic food-labelling scheme was also required to give consumers confidence about quality and assured sourcing of products. Such a scheme is required for Scottish products, in particular for those that are sold close to their markets. That would give a big boost to organics. It is a pity that such a policy lever is not available to the Executive under the devolution settlement.

More important, real commitment is required from supermarkets and large food chains towards intensive advertising campaigns that are simultaneously linked to price reductions for affordability—that was the key in Denmark in 1993. The largest retail group reached an agreement with the organic producers to reduce prices and simultaneously increase the marketing of organic produce. Within 18 months, organic produce could be found on the shelves in 95 per cent of food retail outlets. The same was done in Austria. Unless such an approach is taken in Scotland, we will not progress matters.

I want to say something to the minister.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I will be brief. In Aberdeen, the First Minister told us that, where it was possible and achievable, he would discuss with members introducing members' bills how to find consensus and ways forward. I implore the minister to reconsider the Executive's position. The bill can be amended so that it works and Robin Harper will have done Scotland's organic farming sector a real service. I ask the minister to be reasonable, to think about what I have said before 5 o'clock and to change his position.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I am afraid that there is no scope for members to overrun their time limits in the way that Bruce Crawford has done. Members should stick closely to the time that they have been allotted from now on, or members will be frozen from the open debate. Alex Fergusson has five minutes.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 11:44 am, 6th February 2003

I will preface my speech as the rural affairs spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives with some sentences as convener of the Rural Development Committee. First, I echo Bruce Crawford and congratulate Robin Harper on having successfully shepherded his bill to this stage—it has already had a significant effect. Secondly, I thank our long-suffering and hard-working clerking team, who as ever have made the work of committee members much easier. I am sure that all members of the committee would like to record their thanks, too.

I congratulate Robin Harper on his achievement, as the Scottish Conservatives have been categorical from the outset in saying that a debate on the organic sector has been long overdue. I remember when Robin Harper first approached me about the bill. I was instinctively supportive, simply on the grounds that the industry desperately needed the debate so that existing and prospective organic producers would know exactly where they stood. Gathering evidence for the committee report has allowed us to generate some of the debate, although I do not believe that it has yet ended—I will return to that point later.

Passions are easily aroused about organic farming. Proponents and advocates of organic farming hail organic produce and say that it has great health benefits and that the production system is beneficial to the environment and animal welfare. Others are less generous. During the Linking Environment and Farming—LEAF—presentation, which I hosted last week, an adviser to that organisation, who described himself as an active environmentalist rather than environmental activist, said that if he had his way, he would forcibly prevent his children from eating organic produce on health grounds alone. Another person said that the only difference in treating an animal with chemicals or antibiotics was that, if the animal was organic, permission had to be requested first.

We cannot therefore pretend that there is universal agreement on the environmental, health and animal welfare benefits of organic production.

However, few people would dispute that it meets many of the criteria that are set out in the Executive's document "A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture"—the Executive acknowledges that fact in its introduction to the action plan that was conveniently published two days ago. I will say one thing about the Scottish Executive: it can certainly get a document published when it needs to. I wish that it would show a similar urgency in publishing the findings of the short-life action group on ME, which John McAllion and I are keen to see. We know that the report was signed off before Christmas and has not yet been published. I accept that I am digressing, Presiding Officer.

We have always stated that our preference for the way forward for the organic sector is a robust and focused action plan that is agreed by stakeholders, and I welcome the publication of the plan. The Conservative party and I have never believed that legislative targets are the correct way forward for a sector that can and should be market led. That view was reinforced by the evidence to the committee from the past chairman of SOPA, to which Bruce Crawford drew attention.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does the member accept that conventional farming is not market led and that it exists on subsidies? Why should organic farming not receive similar support?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I will come to that matter. Mr Harper is well aware that there is a separate organic aid scheme.

The evidence that the past chairman of SOPA gave us and letters that I have received clearly show that the organic sector itself is not totally convinced about the arguments for legislative targets. I remain opposed to them.

I return to the need for further debate. In evidence to the committee, David Finlay of Gatehouse of Fleet, who is the producer of the excellent Cream O'Galloway ice cream stated:

"Money is being paid out of the public purse that gives non-organic competitors an unfair advantage. Professor Jules Pretty considered that matter and said that £130 to £140 per hectare of additional public money is made available to allow non-organic farmers to put their products on the shelf at a cheaper price. I have been in correspondence about the matter. If there are two farmers in the same area with the same type of stock and one is an organic farmer and the other is a non-organic farmer, the organic farmer will receive between £50 and £80 per hectare less in public support."

That addresses one point. He continued:

"If we took away all the subsidies and made the polluter pay, we would all be on an equal footing and we could compete."—[Official Report, Rural Development Committee, 10 December 2002; c 3908.]

That is why I contend that the debate is incomplete and deserves to continue. We need to investigate whether the Executive is doing all that it can to achieve the level playing field to which Mr Finlay and, indeed, Karen Gillon referred. A continuing debate on the bill could help to achieve that and I will not seek to shorten that debate by opposing the bill at this stage.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour 11:49 am, 6th February 2003

We are not debating the merits of organic farming; we are debating the general principles of a bill in Robin Harper's name. I intimate that I will not support Robin Harper in his laudable intentions.

The Labour party is committed to growth in organic farming and the setting of challenging targets, but the bill is not the best means of achieving that objective.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue and I welcome the publication of the "Organic Action Plan" and the detail that Ross Finnie outlined. The plan represents a meaningful way forward and, thankfully, brings Scotland into line with England and Wales, where Margaret Beckett published an action plan last July.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Does Alasdair Morrison agree that the action plan does not bring us entirely into line with England and Wales, because in Wales targets have been set for organics? Would it not be possible to set statutory targets through a statutory instrument at a later date, as long as the targets are set alongside the proper policy levers and incentives?

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

I find it perplexing that the targets within a bill entitled the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill would not be statutory or binding, as Robin Harper said. What Margaret Beckett did in England and Wales was correct and what Ross Finnie has done in Scotland this week is correct.

We must grapple with many issues in relation to the production of food, but the setting of unachievable and meaningless targets is not the way forward. Mr Harper is willing to negotiate on the target, but it is not in the Executive's gift to guarantee that a given level of land will be in organic production. We should instead consider meaningful ways to increase consumption and production.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

I would like Mr Harper to let me continue. We should consider where the considerable amount of money that is spent supporting farming is deployed. Could that money be better deployed? As someone who is a crofter and represents a crofting constituency, I say that it could be better deployed.

Co-operation and partnership between all parts of the organic food chain are required to realise our shared aspiration. This morning, I spoke to Angus MacDonald, who is a crofter from North Uist who produces organic potatoes and organic beef. He has read Mr Harper's bill and the accompanying documents and he does not support the bill. He recognises the sentiments behind the bill, but he says that it is meaningless and not what he, as an organic producer, is looking for. Angus MacDonald and crofters from other Hebridean islands—and mainland farmers—want assistance to help them to convert and to meet adaptation costs, which are minimal, so that they can return to non-intensive crofting techniques that have safeguarded our environment for many generations and continue to help to maintain our pristine environment.

Those crofters and farmers need support to produce organic products and to ensure not only that the products reach the market but that the market is sufficiently developed so that the fruits of their labours are bought. In an intervention, Karen Gillon made an important point about affordability, and Angus MacDonald said that affordability is the key. They want access to the mass markets.

Photo of Angus MacKay Angus MacKay Labour

I am glad that Mr Morrison made the point that affordability has been mentioned several times in the debate. Many of us support the principles behind the bill and want there to be increased organic production and an increased range of organic products. However, in Scotland, where there is a high level of heart disease and cancer, the primary challenge is for people to eat more fruit and vegetables—full stop. Many of us are troubled by the fact that neither the bill nor perhaps even the minister's targets seem to address the fundamental point, which is the affordability of better-quality food for everyone. In a sector that is supported thoroughly by subsidy, the subsidy should be used effectively so that everyone has access to these products.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

Angus MacKay is correct. Affordability is key and the health issues that he mentions are very important.

I will briefly address issues that the Rural Development Committee discussed. The committee was broadly sympathetic to the aims of the bill. We all share the aspiration of a vigorous and fairly supported organic sector in Scotland but, given the uncertainty about whether the removal of a specific target in the bill as published would be consistent with the general principles of the bill, the committee chose not to make a recommendation to the Parliament.

The intentions behind the bill are commendable but, as I said, there are many issues to do with the politics of food production and what we do as a country—Angus MacKay touched on one important issue. The bill is flawed. The best way forward to achieve the intended outcomes of the bill is to ensure that the action plan is implemented in full. As Mr Harper said, the bill would have no effect. It is unenforceable and we should not waste the time of the Parliament by debating it any further.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 11:55 am, 6th February 2003

My personal enthusiasm for organic food and farming goes back a long way; my support for the bill today is not tokenistic. I have been a consistent advocate within the SNP for organic farming, I was an original member of Robin Harper's steering group and, not least, I am a consumer. I participate in an organic vegetable box scheme, so I regularly receive leafy greens with regulation slugs included. My husband complains that there is often more meat in the vegetable box than he sees in a butcher's shop.

I am in the scheme because, like many consumers, my real frustration in recent years has been that it is possible to get fresh organic produce in the supermarkets, but not local, fresh organic produce. That should be possible in many cases, especially in the north-east, where we are renowned for the quality of our farm products. Taking action to develop the sector so that we become much less dependent on imports is long overdue. In my view, pushing up the ratio of organic land from 7 per cent to 20 per cent of the total over the next 10 years seems eminently appropriate.

It should be noted that as recently as last month a MORI poll of more than 1,000 adults confirmed that most Scots—68 per cent—want more organic farming and 64 per cent of those interviewed believe that the Scottish Executive should set targets to achieve that. I am sure that many members have, like myself, received lots of e-mails and letters that confirm that view.

I note Robin Harper's flexibility on having targets in the bill, but it is the case that most European Union member states have set targets for conversion. Those states include Sweden, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Finland. How do they manage it? Even where targets have not been set, they are seen as an important part of a longer-term strategy.

The Welsh Assembly has been mentioned. It approved a target of a 10 per cent conversion of farmland by 2005. European agriculture ministers, including the UK minister, have signed up to and committed themselves to the development of a European action plan, with a target of 20 per cent by 2010.

I remind Ross Finnie and his colleagues that in April of this year the Liberal Democrats passed a resolution in favour of an organic action plan, which included "an ambitious minimum target". Charles Kennedy said that he wants to see 30 per cent of farmland converted to organic by 2010.

Like other members, I am pleased that the Executive now has an action plan, which has real potential. One disappointment, however, is that I understand that the organic aid scheme is to be discretionary and not mandatory; a lot remains to be seen in terms of implementation. What I and many others want to ensure is the implementation, by whatever means, of a secure and robust framework for the development of organic farming in Scotland over the next decade. Financial and technical support needs to be there for farmers to convert with confidence. There must be much more meaningful support for organic farmers; they face a series of practical and financial difficulties when they seek to convert to organic and in maintaining organic status.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

We must ensure that support for our farmers is at the very least equivalent to the support offered elsewhere.

Another factor to take into account is the on-going concern about the safety of food and its nutritional value. Fruit and vegetables are good for us and part of the healthy eating campaign is that we should eat more of them. I am a vegetarian and fruit and vegetables form a large part of my diet, but I am concerned by the latest figures on pesticide residues. The figures are a cause for concern; a third of all food on sale in the UK is alleged to be contaminated—much of that is fruit and vegetables. I am inclined to the view that we do not know what is the safe level for the use of many of those chemicals—if there is one. That health risk is eliminated in organic produce.

The bill is good news for the agriculture industry as it provides direction, a focus on quality produce and a firm basis for sustainable growth. It will deliver benefits for biodiversity, the landscape and animal welfare. It will reduce pollution in the environment and it will be good news for the health of our people. What more could we ask? Please support the bill.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 11:59 am, 6th February 2003

I supported the principles of Robin Harper's bill from the start and I still do. For me, the question is straightforward: should we strengthen our powers to enforce the targets or does the organic action plan have the same effect? The test is whether the Executive has the will to make things happen. Parliament should take a hard line in asking the Executive how it intends to achieve its aims. We are entitled to reassurances from the minister that he means what he says.

My interest in the subject relates to consumer choice, transparency in food production and affordability. Labour takes the politics of food seriously. There should be a right to information about how the food in shops and supermarkets is produced and a choice of vegetables from various farming methods. Food labelling must be easy to understand and should not conceal the contents of food or confuse the consumer in any way. As Karen Gillon, Alasdair Morrison and Angus MacKay have said, the issue is also about affordability, affordability, affordability.

Scotland has serious health and poverty problems and organic targets might seem to be a million miles away from the social justice policies to which the Parliament is committed. However, families with moderate incomes who write to me on the issue demand that the Parliament should take seriously its responsibilities on providing choice and protecting the environment.

I congratulate Robin Harper on encouraging ministers to produce the organic action plan—without him, the plan would not have been produced. I urge ministers to say how soon they will consult on improved payments for organic conversion and how quickly such a system could be implemented.

Organic farming is not only about farming without chemicals, it is also about the environment and encouraging natural systems. However, the assertion that organic produce is healthier is not generally supported in the evidence—the Food Standards Agency states that there is no proven case that organic produce is healthier. However, the essential point is that, whether or not organic food is healthier, the consumer should have the right to choose, although I believe that it is healthier.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does the member concede that there is mounting evidence that some organic vegetables are of higher quality than conventionally farmed vegetables?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I have no difficulty with that. I simply point out what the Food Standards Agency said. The boom in sales of organic produce in supermarkets demonstrates that consumers think that it is healthier.

There is further work to be done in defining standards. The UK has two bodies that are free to define standards—provided that they at least meet European standards—which leads to confusion with labelling. We must sort that out.

The Parliament often takes measures that are achievable and realisable, but that do not require legislation; for example, we did that with education targets. I am in two minds about the bill. I am worried that if its targets are not binding or legally enforceable, we might pass a law that has no effect.

I reiterate that the test that we should take into account at decision time is whether the Executive has demonstrated that it has the will to realise the action plan. I will base my vote at 5 o'clock on that test.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 12:03 pm, 6th February 2003

I congratulate Robin Harper on forcing organic farming and related issues up the Parliament's agenda. Although I am not a signatory to the bill, I was a signatory to the original proposal because I felt that it was important that organic farming should be at the top of the Parliament's agenda. I sincerely believe that, were it not for Robin Harper, the organic action plan that was published in the past few days would not be with us and we would not have an alternative route to consider.

It will be difficult for me to support the bill because I genuinely believe that organic farming must take its place among a range of strategies that are designed to support the economic production of quality food in Scotland. Given the economic pressures that the Scottish farming industry faces, its survival will be based on premium marketing strategies. Organic farming belongs at the top of the tree of such strategies, but that leads to a dichotomy, because if we are to consider premiums to secure incomes for farmers, a higher return from the marketplace will be required to justify the change in production.

That brings me to the issue of affordability, which Karen Gillon and others have raised. To achieve affordability we must consider the capability of Scotland and other places in Europe to produce organic products. If organic vegetables are to be available in large quantities, perhaps they should not be grown in Scotland because it is not the ideal place to grow them—the Dutch polders would be more appropriate. Conversely, Scotland is the ideal place to produce organic meat because we can produce organic beef and lamb on the hills with very little need for conversion. All that is required is support for the people who finish livestock on lower land to allow them to continue to treat the product organically.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

As Alex Johnstone is a farmer, I seek his view on the fact that some of the subsidy that is paid to organic farmers ends up in the supermarkets' pockets as a result of the additional costs that are paid for organic food. We must consider that if we are to achieve affordability.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That is one of the issues that, I hope, the Scottish Parliament and the Executive will consider.

I have one or two points to make to try to balance the argument. We all know that the organic farming industry has been one of the growth areas in UK and Scottish agriculture in recent years. Many people believe that, by using organic products, they do a service to the environment. I steadfastly defend their right to think that, but I must make it clear that organic farmers and those who choose to support them by purchasing their products are not superior in their judgment to the majority, who might hold differing opinions. Those who produce or consume organic products by choice are comparable to those who make similar choices for ethical or religious reasons.

I will not support any measure that introduces targets above and beyond those that the marketplace can support; neither will I support any legislation that would make organic farmers pre-eminent over the majority of farmers, who continue to behave ethically and responsibly within more traditional production methods. I sincerely support many of Robin Harper's points, but I cannot support the bill.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 12:08 pm, 6th February 2003

I congratulate Robin Harper on his Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill and Ross Finnie on his organic action plan. There is not much difference between the policy objectives of the Executive's plan and those of Robin Harper's bill, but the important point is that the organic action plan has the potential to go further than the bill. I welcome the Executive's target that locally-grown organic produce should meet 70 per cent of the demand for organic food. Given the huge growth in demand in the UK for organic produce, it is simply not good enough for us to continue to import 65 per cent of such produce. I also welcome the target that the area of arable land under organic production should be doubled—from 15 per cent to 30 per cent—by 2007.

The action plan goes further than the bill in supporting targets, in proposing new payments for organic conversion, in supporting better marketing—including the important development of Scottish organic branding—in supporting research into the sector and in supporting the development of organic standards that are appropriate to Scottish circumstances. For example, perhaps lambs that are born to ewes that have been wintered on non-organic land before being mated should gain organic status. That we contribute our unique Scottish farming perspective to developing new UK standards is essential.

The debate is important. Few topics—perhaps none—are more important than the quality of the food that we eat, which has implications for all other aspects of policy. The treatment of animals is also important for any civilised society.

I am passionate about organic food production. My constituency has many high-quality organic food producers, such as Damhead Holdings. We have producers of organic milk, and an excellent company called Simply Organic, which was started by Christine Manson and Belinda Mitchell. Simply Organic is expanding rapidly and is now supplying Sainsbury's supermarkets with its excellent organic food.

The huge increase in organic consumption is good for the Midlothian economy. It is also good for the Scottish economy. Most important, organic food is good for our health. However, the unenforceable targets in Robin Harper's bill do not go far enough. The action plan goes further, but I want an assurance from the minister that the action plan is just the beginning of the process. I want an assurance that the action plan is a call to action, not an end in itself.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 12:11 pm, 6th February 2003

I have always believed that organic production has an important role to play in Scottish agriculture and that there are real opportunities for Scotland to grab a larger share of a growing market. That is an important point. The growing market allows us to capitalise on organic production. Market-driven opportunities must lead to the growth of the Scottish organic production sector. The Government's role is to support that growth and to ensure that the proper mechanisms are put in place to support the opportunity to grow Scotland's market share.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

Does George Lyon agree that the Government has a role in growing the market, particularly in relation to any steps that can be taken on public purchase? A number of Labour members have mentioned affordability. I am sure that they hold those issues in common with other members. We can grow the market and we should look for measures to do that to ensure access to organic produce.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I was going to come to that. Affordability is the key issue that confronts the organic sector. A fundamental economic fact of life is that, if I as a farmer convert to organic production, my output decreases substantially—by somewhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent, depending on what I produce. As a result, I need a higher price to sustain the farming enterprise. If the market will not return that extra premium, the state must. If we are to tackle the affordability gap seriously, the market or the state must deliver the extra return.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does George Lyon concede that the longer that someone farms organically, the higher the productivity of their land? As time progresses, organic farming usually gets to the point at which the farmer ends up no more than 10 per cent to 20 per cent below conventional production levels.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

That is a pretty optimistic theory. I challenge it in the light of farming practice.

Closing the affordability gap is essential in the growth of the market. There have been false dawns in the growth of the organic sector in the United Kingdom. There was huge growth in the organic sector in the late 1980s on the back of a substantial economic boom. Thanks to John Major and Norman Lamont, that all came unstuck in 1992 and organic produce virtually disappeared from supermarket shelves. In fact, co-operative supermarkets were the only ones that stocked organic products after 1992-93. The organic sector has begun to grow again only on the back of the sustained growth of the past several years.

We must consider the merits of the bill against that background of fluctuating demand. The Liberal Democrats wish organic production in Scotland to grow. We want Scottish products to be substituted for imported products. We wish Scotland's share of the UK market to grow over the coming years. We wish more value to be added in Scotland—that is an extremely important point—and we wish to see a strong, Scottish organic label. We also want some of the major structural weaknesses of the organic sector to be addressed. Some of that has already been done through the action plan.

The question before members is simply whether enshrining a 20 per cent target in legislation is the right way to address the growth of the organic sector. I do not think so. In his contribution, Robin Harper destroyed the argument for the bill. When he was asked the question, he freely admitted that there were no sanctions in the bill and that it does not bind the ministers to the targets for which the bill legislates. The question then arises as to why he is proposing legislation that does not meet either of those objectives.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The member is almost finished. In fact, the member is finished. That is a bonus three seconds for me, not that the rest of it is all that easy.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 12:15 pm, 6th February 2003

We have had an excellent debate and everyone, regardless of party, has agreed that we want to support the organic movement in Scotland. We want more organic food to be produced, and critically, we want it to be affordable.

This week brought the publication of the action plan. Labour party members strongly welcome the plan. We have campaigned for it throughout the first Parliament—I lodged a motion for debate last year and I was pleased at the amount of support it got.

However, the biggest conversion to organic that we have had is the minister, Ross Finnie. I remember asking a series of questions of Ross about when we would get an action plan and the strongest answer I ever got on the record was that the agriculture and environment working group report had a useful passage on organic farming. I give the minister credit for bringing together an organic action plan.

Robin Harper's bill has concentrated the mind wonderfully. It has given those of us on the Labour back benches the impetus to push Ross Finnie. I am glad that he has introduced an excellent action plan. Robin Harper should be given credit for helping us get to such a pressure point in Parliament. We all know how the pressure points work; today is one of them.

I agree absolutely with Rhona Brankin that the critical test will be what happens next with the action plan, which goes beyond what Robin Harper has put in his bill. The challenge is to deliver on the action plan.

We need aspirational targets that will change in future. Let us consider what has happened with renewables in Parliament. We began with a modest aspirational target and we now have a challenging aspirational target. That has given leadership and confidence to the industry. We want the same for organics. Scotland must catch up with the rest of the UK.

In an otherwise measured speech from Bruce Crawford, he made a ludicrous assertion that the devolution settlement might contribute to the failure of organics in Scotland. That must be the most ludicrous assertion that we have heard today.

A 70 per cent target for organic production in Scotland to meet the demand is an excellent target and one that we should all support.

Pauline McNeill made a passionate speech in support of accurate labelling for consumers. We need more research into organic production. We need support for local farmers' markets and we need retailing initiatives.

However, the biggest issue in the action plan that we must tackle is financial support. Robin Harper's bill would not deliver that. That is where the Labour party wants to add something to the debate.

The action plan promises consultation and financial support. The Labour party is absolutely clear—we need radically to change environmental support through the agri-environment budget, which is the lowest in Europe; that is not good enough. We must have a radical shift in the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. That is an issue for the Scottish Parliament elections. The process of getting there must be inclusive. We have our annual report to Parliament. One of the first debates we need in the new Parliament is on progress on the organic action plan.

I pledge our support for the action plan. The Labour party will not be supporting Robin Harper's bill, but all credit to him for getting us to this point today.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 12:19 pm, 6th February 2003

I welcome the chance that Robin Harper has given us to debate organic farming.

Recently, farming has been in a dreadful state and organic farming appears to be a growth sector that produces benefits. For example, organic farming uses less energy, it is good for biodiversity, it is good for wildlife—especially bird life—it is good for species, rich vegetation and more labour is employed on organic farms.

I disagree with Angus MacKay, who said that organic food is better quality. There is no factual evidence to support that. Although I agree with Robin Harper that the Government should help organic and environmentally friendly farmers and producers, I do not believe that a target of making 20 per cent of Scottish land organic is the way to go about it.

Peter Stewart of the National Farmers Union of Scotland said:

"If I were struggling to find the premium that I require and a mechanism to market what I produce in an orderly manner, the thought of having to produce an entire further tranche—without the policy being thoroughly thought through—would probably mean that I would give up organic production tomorrow."—[Official Report, Rural Development Committee, 3 December 2002; c 3884.]

Store lambs and store calves raised in the Scottish hills are just as organic as the wild red deer that roam the same terrain. However, many hill farmers winter young breeding stock on better land elsewhere—that is accepted practice for sheep and cattle—and those wintering areas would also have to be organic to comply with the rules. If an organic hill store producer finished their lambs on better grass in an arable area that was not organically certified, those animals would lose their status.

Photo of Angus MacKay Angus MacKay Labour

Given Jamie McGrigor's view on the difference between organically farmed food and non-organically farmed food, does he share the same view with regard to fish-farmed fish and natural fish?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You have one minute left, Mr McGrigor.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I just do not have time to talk about that now. We can talk about it later.

Winter feed also has to be bought in, and that would have to come from organic areas. All those factors greatly increase the overheads of the average hill farmer, so a way must be found of linking producers and finishers together. Otherwise, much of the value of the organic aid scheme will be lost.

Government support should be not for land targets, but for targets that improve the profitability and sustainability of organic farming. We recently had a debate on recycling. Having talked to councillors in the Highlands, I was left with the words, "No targets without markets," literally ringing in my ears. The organic sector is the same. Last Saturday, I visited the Edinburgh farmers' market in Castle Terrace and viewed the many stalls selling excellent produce, much of which was organic. That was very encouraging. Organic farming is a good niche sector and should be encouraged, but we must link the environment and farming. I support organic farming as part of the Scottish agricultural sector.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 12:22 pm, 6th February 2003

I commend Robin Harper's work on the bill, which has opened up a much wider debate than there would otherwise have been on the potential commercial, environmental and health benefits that organic farming presents. I would like to see a lot more organic food produced and consumed in Scotland, for a variety of reasons, and with some caveats—some of both have been articulated in the chamber today.

People often have wholly unrealistic expectations of what laws can do, and we will not get more organic by passing a law that says that it will happen. Robin Harper copied to all MSPs his letter to Ross Finnie. What I take from that letter is that Robin Harper is prepared to concede that the statutory target in the bill is, in essence, meaningless, but that he still wants legislation almost as a letter of comfort to the organic sector that there will be continuing Executive support through successive Administrations. I honestly do not believe that such a law will deliver what its backers think it will. Putting a reasoned argument to a Scottish Parliament that is set up to be responsive will achieve the objectives that they want.

Robin Harper has a small but beautiful bill. I prefer the bigger, better and more beautiful action plan. Government can help to promote and encourage, and it should and will do so, and it can set targets and measure progress. However, I am with the NFUS, which believes that Scotland needs an organic action plan to tackle factors that are currently stifling the development of the sector in this country. The NFUS welcomes the publication of the Executive's organic action plan and believes that that is the right way to proceed with development of the sector. The NFUS does not, however, support the setting of arbitrary targets for production as proposed by the bill.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 12:24 pm, 6th February 2003

I am minded to look at the bill's policy memorandum, which states:

"The long-term aim of the Bill is that there should be more organic food produced and consumed in Scotland".

I am happy to represent a party with clear green credentials. My colleagues in the European Parliament are allied with the Greens there.

We find ourselves in a rather interesting position today, because we shall be supporting Robin Harper's bill despite, in many respects, his best efforts in committee. We support organic farming, and we want to see the expansion of organic food production. We shall therefore support the bill on its general principles because, as Alex Fergusson said, the debate should continue.

We believe that growth of organic production is sustainable only when there is growth in demand. We must see a growth in demand if we are to succeed.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I do not have time to give way.

Robin Harper is making things difficult for those who want to support him. He said that supporting the general principles of the bill would not commit the Executive to a 20 per cent target for organic farming and that targets are merely advisory. Does Robin Harper mean to say that next time I pass a 30 miles per hour speed limit, I should merely take the advice to drive at no more than 30 miles per hour?

We have to see targets, and we expect that the Executive will introduce them in due course.

Without the target, the bill in many ways would be reduced to a wish list, but at least at stage 2 we would have the opportunity to introduce something to it that would be of value. The organic action plan, produced by the Executive, is welcome after such a long period. I welcome the fact that we will see a fair reflection of the costs of organic conversion and a reasonable incentive provided. It is disappointing that that will happen only after further consultation.

We need smart targets to develop organic expansion in areas where production is particularly low at the moment. Scotland consumes twice as much organics as it produces, so there is a key opportunity. However, we need a level playing field in the UK and Europe.

Some Labour members, in particular Alasdair Morrison, have been telling people in e-mails that they will be backing the bill—I have just received a note about that. I call on him and others to back the bill and allow the debate to continue. We shall be doing so at 5 o'clock.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 12:27 pm, 6th February 2003

I ask Alasdair Morrison to consider the fact that, of the representations that we received from organic farmers, those who were in favour of the bill outnumbered those who were against it by about 90 to one. I hope that his re-election to Parliament does not depend on what he said to the one crofter whom he quoted in his speech.

I thank all the members who have spoken in this extremely good debate. I am sorry, but in eight minutes I will not be able to reply to all the points that have been raised; I will, however, deal with the most important ones. I also thank my assistant and the bill's architect, Mark Ruskell, who has been working on the bill for more than three and a half years. He deserves as much, if not more, praise as I do.

First, I must address yet again the issue of targets. Sometimes I feel that I am beating my head against a brick wall on the subject. It seems that people are unwilling to understand this point. I never said that targets were meaningless. If statutory or non-statutory targets are meaningless—as several members have suggested—why do we bother setting them at all? Of course, there is a perfectly good reason for doing so: setting targets is a way of measuring progress and provides something to aim for. Those who do not meet such targets can then be held responsible in the Parliament. After all, the fact that the Executive is accountable to the Parliament simply asserts the Parliament's primacy. A responsibility chain exists; if it did not, why would we ever set targets? I simply want to set targets in this bill in the same way that targets are set in so much other legislation and policy.

However, I would be more than willing at stage 2 to continue the discussion on the nature of such targets. We know that 85 per cent of the land in conversion is rough grazing; only 15 per cent of it is improved and arable grassland. An overall target of 20 per cent might be a little unsophisticated. I would even be prepared to go so far as to encourage the Executive to consider what amendments it would like to make so as to give maximum encouragement to the organic sector.

Sarah Boyack said that what happens next is critical, and that we need aspirational targets. She said that my bill would not achieve as much as the Executive is already doing. The bill requires the plan to include minimum targets; it does not rule out additional areas. The bill is a start; it is not the end of everything. It is an enabling bill.

The purpose of the debate is not to stray into the detail that will be dealt with at stage 2, but either to approve or to knock back the principle that we should have targeted action plans for organic farming for the next 10 years, backed up by a simple legislative framework. Whether the targets should be contained in the action plan that the bill provides for can be discussed at stage 2.

Every approach to develop organic farming that has been adopted throughout Europe has consisted of a balance of market pull forces and Government push forces. The bill is about the Government assisting the market so that it can pull effectively. If the Parliament has concerns that the bill as introduced is set too far towards Government push rather than market pull, members should lodge amendments at stage 2 to reflect their concerns.

We do not know what the future holds for any of us beyond 1 May this year, and we do not know what the colours of the next three Executives might be. If parties agree with the setting of targets as part of an action plan to develop the organic sector, they should have no qualms about supporting the bill today, and they should ensure that neither they nor their opponents let organic farming slip quietly off the agenda, back to where it was three and a half years ago.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I very much agree with Robin Harper's point about the need for continued long-term support across the parties, but does he acknowledge that one of the key objectives of the bill—to have an annual debate in the Parliament—will in fact be achieved through the annual report that is provided for in Ross Finnie's action plan?

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

How can I disagree with that? My point is that, under the bill, successive Executives would be required over the next 10 years to come back to the Parliament with their yearly plans. What Ross Finnie proposes is a four-year plan—it could end in four years. What I propose is a 10-year plan. I suggest to all members, including Mr Finnie and other members of the Executive, that only that level of support will give the organic sector and the market forces in particular—the pull side—the kind of confidence that will allow for the level of investment that will produce the results that we would like to achieve.

I challenge the Parliament to support the bill in the spirit of the constructive politics that emerged during the Scottish Green Party debate last Thursday, spurred on by the First Minister's call for such politics to take root in the Parliament.

I see that I have time to take a quick look at some further points. I thank everybody who has spoken in favour of the bill, particularly Irene McGugan. I thank members for their kind words on what they hope the bill will achieve. The praise was muted, however, by members saying that they would not support the bill.

The Executive says that it is setting a target of Scottish organic products meeting 70 per cent of demand, and that it is setting a target to double the amount of arable and improved grassland. That sounds great, but it will mean only an increase from about 1 per cent to about 2 per cent of the total area of farm land in Scotland. The amount in conversion at the moment is tiny in relation to everything else, so members should not be too impressed by the use of the word "double".

Angus MacKay raised the issue of affordability. The Executive's action plan will help to make organic produce more affordable. The bill would be even more effective in the long term in ensuring greater production. Even conventionally produced food is often sold at higher prices in markets in deprived areas than in the big supermarkets.

At stage 2, the Executive could lodge an amendment to remove the 20 per cent target from the bill and to insert any targets that it likes in an action plan. However, we should keep the statutory action plan. Members should not throw the baby out with the bath water, but should approve the principles of the bill so that it can be considered further and improved at stage 2. If the Executive does not support the principles of the bill, it will undermine completely the credibility of its new-found enthusiasm for organic farming.

I urge the Parliament to support the general principles of the Organic Farming Targets (Scotland) Bill.