I am delighted to bring the debate to the Parliament, enabling all MSPs the opportunity to show their support for food and drink in Scotland, just ahead of food and drink fortnight. The pandemic has taught us a lot about what really matters. We realise that being able to go to the shops and buy whatever we need is a privilege not to be taken for granted. We have learned that sitting down to eat as a family or household provides nourishment that is also social and emotional.
Today I want to celebrate the contribution of the food and drink sector to Scottish life, not only in feeding us but in providing opportunity and employment, protecting and enhancing the environment and helping to define who we are as a nation.
Our producers, farmers and fishermen showed tremendous resilience as they navigated the pandemic, and they now face the stark realities of a new operating landscape brought about by a reckless Brexit deal. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting the sector to recover and to pursuing our goal of Scotland being a good food nation. Creating this good food nation will bring us many benefits. We aim to achieve a decline in dietary-related diseases and a healthier population.
The member will be aware that the work to tackle those issues is on-going.
We are aware of the need to consider the environmental impacts of our food consumption and production. A good food nation should be a more sustainable food nation. Scotland already has a reputation for producing world-class quality food. Our aim is to build on that reputation and secure our future as a destination of choice for those who value quality local food and a place to which other countries turn in order to learn how to become a good food nation.
Does the minister understand the farming community’s frustration that we still do not have a future farm policy in place? It will be the driver for our cuts to agricultural emissions, but it does not look as though we will have a policy in place for another two years. Do we not need a bit more urgency?
There absolutely is urgency. That is why we established the agriculture reform implementation oversight board just last week, and it will be driving forward the recommendations of the established farmer-led groups. We recognise the urgency, and we want to drive and deliver that change.
We have seen the stresses and strains that Brexit and Covid-19 have placed on our food system, so it is more important than ever that our food policies ensure that we are more resilient, and that people in Scotland can access affordable, healthy food that is locally produced, sourced and available. We are working to make that ambition a reality through a wide-ranging programme of measures on food and diet across the five key areas of health, social justice, knowledge, environmental sustainability and prosperity. The next step is to introduce a good food nation bill that will provide the statutory framework needed to support the development of our future food policy to benefit the wellbeing and health of people in Scotland.
Many have called for the right to food to be included in that bill, but the right to food is best considered as part of a single, coherent package of legislative proposals via the human rights bill, which will set out for the first time and in one place the wide range of internationally recognised human rights belonging to everyone in Scotland. That will include a right to adequate food as an essential part of the overall right to an adequate standard of living, as reflected in our shared policy programme with the Scottish Green Party. [
.] I will not take an intervention at the moment; I need to make progress.
I know that many were disappointed when we had to shelve plans for the good food nation bill in the previous parliamentary session due to the pandemic, but I assure members that we intend to introduce that bill early in this session.
Ambition and policy on food is no use without an industry, however, and I do not need to tell members that, as one of our largest employers, our food and drink industry is both economically and culturally vital to Scotland, sustaining jobs in some of our most fragile and rural communities. It is also one of the sectors most adversely affected by Brexit, which is threatening jobs and businesses all around the country, undermining the sector’s ambition to double turnover to £30 billion by the year 2030. That is why a key priority last year was to put in place a recovery plan for the sector, the first sectoral recovery plan of its type. Working closely with the food and drink partnership, particularly the industry body Scotland Food & Drink, we have collectively committed £10 million in support so far.
The United Kingdom Government offered extended powers in the Agriculture Bill to enable devolved Administrations to develop their own subsidy system. Wales and Northern Ireland took up the offer, but the SNP Government did not. Can the cabinet secretary explain why the SNP Government is snubbing the offer for extended powers through the UK Government’s post-Brexit agriculture policy?
That is absolute nonsense when it is the UK Government that is decimating the food and drink industry in Scotland right now.
There is no doubt that some sectors suffered due to the pandemic, particularly those dependent on a vibrant export market or those affected by outbreaks. However, the effects of Covid have only added to the severe and significant impacts of Brexit. Put simply, the Tories could not have designed a worse Brexit deal and all that we warned of is now coming to pass. I know that some would like us all to pretend that Brexit is done and dusted, but that will not wash. They know, we know and, indeed, our hard-pressed food and drink businesses know that worse is to come. With further custom and border checks still due to be implemented—some starting this autumn and others in January 2022—the full impact of Brexit is still to be realised.
To add insult to injury, the much-lauded trade deals being secured in an attempt to replace the reported £18 billion being lost across the entirety of trade as a result of being ripped out of the single market are nothing but a damp squib. What have we got to show for the UK-Australia future trade agreement? [
.] I will not take an intervention at the moment.
The same as we had before, only now Australia gets to bring more of its food products into our markets, competing tariff free with our own producers of quality red meat in particular. Previous UK Government modelling suggested that the agriculture and semi-processed foods sectors would lose out from an Australia trade deal, so we have every right to be nervous about the impact of that trade deal, which frankly is only the start. We were not involved in the negotiations that resulted in the agreement and we are not involved in the negotiations that are still going on, despite the impact that the deal will have on devolved responsibilities.
Daily, we hear of new and emerging challenges: shortages of heavy goods vehicle drivers and workers in processing and manufacturing, as well as associated skills shortages across the industry. Labour and skills shortages like those lay bare the extraordinary recklessness of this hard Brexit.
The cabinet secretary raised the issue of HGV drivers. Obviously, there is a shortage of those across Europe and supply chains have struggled on that basis. However, one of the other issues facing communities like mine in the Highlands and Islands is the lack of local infrastructure, such as the ferries, for being able to get produce off the islands. We called for a minister to come and give a statement on ferries. Will the cabinet secretary, as the cabinet secretary for the islands, give her backing to one of her colleagues coming here to give us a statement on when our island communities can expect reliable ferry links?
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We should not forget that, as businesses faced Brexit border disruptions and barriers to trade, which cost UK food exporters £700 million in January alone, the UK Government dismissed industry concerns as “teething” troubles. Those teething troubles are now a chronic problem. Only last week, organisations from the Scottish food and drink industry issued a joint letter, which called for immediate action from the UK Government to solve the growing labour crisis, and NFU Scotland echoed that call in its own letter to the UK Government. I have also written to the UK Government to reinforce that strong messaging from industry, but I feel that it will fall on deaf ears, as all other pleas have.
Scottish seafood is exported to more than 100 countries and brings £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy. Brexit has caused real problems in maintaining workforce in the seafood sector. We continue to press the UK Government to put in place a workable immigration policy that permits European Union workers to enter the sector and supports workers under our fair work agreement. [
No, I will not take an intervention.
We fully support the fishing sector in calling on the UK Government to explain how the Brexit deal that it struck is positive for the Scottish seafood community. That sector has been let down in quota negotiations, was hit with the immediate effects of new border controls and now faces supply chain issues with labour shortages. What UK ministers described as teething troubles are, in reality, new and permanent trade barriers. [
.] I will not take an intervention.
Those barriers have caused long-term damage to the competitiveness of our seafood sector and might be the death knell for some of our exporters and fishing boats.
To address the longer term impact of Brexit, we are developing a new strategy for seafood, to help the sector find new markets, adapt and thrive, and that includes doing so here at home.
Financial support is also key, particularly for investment in innovation. To that end, I announce today nearly £800,000 of new awards to fishing businesses and marine organisations in coastal communities, as part of the £14 million marine fund Scotland. Those awards include funding for new storage facilities at a major seafood processor, funding to help young fishers enter the industry and support for seafood businesses in the north east to develop seafood processing and deliver training. That is in addition to the £1.8 million that has already been announced for Seafood Scotland to support seafood businesses to access new markets after the severe economic impacts of Brexit and Covid-19, and I look forward to seeing those projects develop.
However, welcome though that £14 million is, it is a paltry replacement for the European maritime and fisheries fund, which would have returned £62 million to Scotland for the benefit of our coastal communities, and we are still waiting for details on the long-promised £100 million from the UK Government to support the recovery from Brexit and Covid.
At every turn, Scotland’s fishing and seafood sectors are being short-changed under Brexit, but now, more than ever, we need to produce our food in a way that protects the environment for future generations and safeguards our natural assets.
In addition, Scotland’s food and drink success would not be possible without our producers on the land, and this Government is absolutely committed to continuing to support the sustainable production of the world class food that our farmers and crofters are famous for.
As we approach the end of our period of simplicity and stability, work begins in earnest to put in place a successor to the common agricultural policy, which will guide and support farming, food production and land use in future.
We have a positive vision for our land-based industries, in which our world-class producers thrive and, along with our other land managers, contribute to our world-leading climate change agenda and response to the biodiversity crisis.
Scotland will be recognised as a global leader in sustainable agriculture. While remaining aligned to the principles of the EU, we will have a support framework that delivers climate mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration and high-quality food production. [
.] I will not take an intervention;
I need to make progress.
That work includes our commitment to seek to double the amount of land that is used for organic farming by 2026. We will support farmers and land managers who produce more of our own food needs and manage our land sustainably with nature and for the climate.
Farming, crofting and land management will continue to play an important role in maintaining thriving rural and island communities. We will support that change to ensure that farmers, crofters and local communities can capitalise on the benefits and have equality of opportunity, and that there is a just transition.
Last week, we laid out our first steps towards reforming national policy for Scottish agriculture, and it will be one of the biggest areas of reform undertaken by this Government in the lifetime of this Parliament, with wide-ranging and long-term impacts and opportunities.
Our priority is to make early progress in delivering emissions reductions and agree a package of funded measures that deliver action on key recommendations from the farmer-led groups by the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26.
The national test programme will seek to recruit farmers and crofters this autumn, with implementation beginning by spring next year. At the same time, we are consulting on the key shared themes and specific recommendations from those farmer-led groups. It is important to get the views of as many stakeholders, particularly farmers, tenant farmers, smallholders and crofters, as possible in order to inform our reform agenda. Therefore, I hope that members will encourage those in their constituencies to take part.
We cannot lose sight of all the strengths of the industry that I have talked about in my speech today. As we come to food and drink fortnight, there is a lot to celebrate, enjoy and highlight, and I hope that members will make the time to do so, whether by visiting local markets or producers.
It is also clear that the industry is most vulnerable to the damaging effects of Brexit. Scotland’s food and drink sector has a lot to offer, and has so much potential and ambition, despite the current challenging circumstances. [
.] I will not take an intervention as I am coming to a close.
The Government will do everything that it can to support the industry through those challenging times. Throughout Covid, the sector delivered for the nation and showed resilience and determination. If we can all get behind it and show the support that the sector deserves, I firmly believe that the future will be positive. I commend the motion in my name and ask members to support it.
That the Parliament, in advance of Food and Drink Fortnight, acknowledges the significant contribution that food and drink make to Scotland’s economy, society and reputation; notes the resilience shown by all of Scotland’s food producers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and thanks everyone involved in food and drink in Scotland for helping to keep food on the table through these challenging times; laments that the sub-standard Brexit deal, secured by the UK Government, is harming food and drink businesses, slowing and making exports harder, has raised their costs and bureaucracy, is causing problems for businesses in recruiting and retaining staff, and is now resulting in concerns about food supplies; welcomes the economic and environmental opportunities for low-carbon, sustainable and organic food production, which can be created by encouraging public kitchens to source more local food; recognises that the Scottish Government is consulting on a draft Local Food Strategy and encourages everyone to take part, and resolves to continue supporting the sector with legislation to grow as a Good Food Nation, where people take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food that they produce, buy, cook, serve and eat each day, and include a right to adequate food as part of wider work to give effect to international human rights law in Scots law.
I am delighted to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.
As the cabinet secretary outlined, food and drink is Scotland’s largest international export industry. It has a strong worldwide reputation, whether due to the quality of our wonderful Scotch beef or our tremendous whiskies. It is Scotland’s largest manufacturing sector, which employs 47,000 people, contributes nearly £4 billion gross value added to the economy and has a turnover of £11 billion.
Today, in advance of Scotland’s food and drink fortnight, we take the opportunity to celebrate the significant contribution that the food and drink sector makes and all the key workers who have done tremendous work over the past 18 months, including warehouse workers, corner shop retailers, the hard-working farmers who found a window of opportunity in which to cut their barley, and our fishermen, who go out in all conditions to get the best fish and seafood, which is sent across the world.
As we celebrate the fantastic work of farmers, I must say that I found a couple of the cabinet secretary’s points astonishing. I will give her the opportunity to address the point about the future farm policy and the news that civil servants would rather cull 300,000 beef cattle than work with farmers to produce food sustainably and meet climate change targets.
I thank the cabinet secretary for acknowledging that, because I wrote to her two months ago about it and Jim Walker’s recommendations with regard to the suckler beef climate scheme. That is now on record.
I believe that this Government has seriously let down farmers, who are now set to be hit by a nationalist coalition of chaos with the Greens. Just yesterday, in
, columnist Claire Taylor made it abundantly clear when she wrote:
“There is no denying that the agricultural industry has been ignored over these past months and that the relationship between those in power and farming has been damaged in the process.”
I remind John Mason that our biggest export market is the rest of the United Kingdom, which is important to the food and drink industry. Therefore, sticking in a hard border, as Emma Harper, who is sitting next to John Mason, suggests, would be seriously damaging. [
.] I will make some progress—I have taken two interventions already.
On the delay in the future farm policy, will the cabinet secretary tell us why the farming and food production future policy group report has still not been published? It was the subject of a freedom of information request during the summer and the report is still in draft.
On the 100th day after the election, the SNP hurriedly launched the agriculture reform implementation oversight board, which just goes to show that it has taken its eye off the ball, and it is now recklessly pursuing a dangerous deal with the Greens to rip Scotland out of the UK.
We have a fantastic chance to design and construct an agricultural support system that really delivers. After the Brexit vote, it took the SNP two years even to launch a simple consultation on the next steps for Scottish farming, and there is little indication of where that will go as we look beyond 2023.
Today, we heard in the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee that there is a need to invest in innovation and food production across Scotland. Our motion recognises that and notes the food industry’s asks of the Scottish Government. We know that our industry is the best in the world, but we consider that this Government has failed to address the issues and support the industry.
I have made it clear that the desire for independence that was announced yesterday through the nationalist coalition will irrevocably damage our food and drink sector. It is well known that, as I pointed out to John Mason, the UK is Scotland’s most important customer.
I will move on. As a natural progression from farming, it would be wrong of me not to mention the Scottish whisky industry.
The member said that the SNP-Green agreement could be damaging to the Scottish farming industry. Does she not find it a bit concerning that there is no mention at all of food production in the UK Government’s Agriculture Act 2020 and that people such as Ben Goldsmith are advising the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
The member should look at what the fishing industry has said about the Green
-SNP deal. It is absolutely extraordinary that the agreement does not mention fishing, which is one of our most important sectors. The livelihoods of fishermen and people in the industry could be affected by it. Elspeth Macdonald from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation made it clear that she was very unhappy that no mention was made of that in the food production part of the Green-SNP deal.
I move on to Scotch whisky. We all know that that is an amazing industry. It employs 11,000 people in Scotland, 7,000 of whom work in rural areas. We know how important it is to ensure that there are strong, sustainable and resilient businesses in rural areas where there is depopulation.
Time is rumbling on, so I will talk about the benefits relating to the changes to the tariffs on single malt Scotch whisky. We know that the industry has been under huge threat. There has been a downturn in sales because of Covid and fewer people have been going into visitor centres. However, it is important to recognise that some markets will be opened up. The Scotch Whisky Association has recognised that opening up the market to Australia and removing the 5 per cent tariff on whisky exports and, indeed, the removal of the 25 per cent export tariff by the US, will help to ensure that the Scotch whisky industry can recover what it has lost and also increase sales.
I think that farmers are more concerned about possibly being instructed to cull their cattle than they are about having to look at sustainable methods of future farm policy. However, I will mention the Trade and Agricultural Commission, which was placed on a statutory footing. Its work will be taken forward. There will be an opportunity to scrutinise the trade deals. NFU Scotland asked for that, as have others, including members in this chamber. There is an opportunity for the cabinet secretary to feed into that.
In conclusion, the picture is worrying. We need to look at labour shortages, particularly in relation to the resilience of the food and farming sector. However, as my colleagues have said, there are a lot of things going on in the industry. There is a lack of diversity; there is an ageing workforce. Normally in Scotland we have a shortage of about 50,000 lorry drivers. We need to ensure that we are training and skilling people up, that we are providing vocational apprenticeships and that we have a resilient food chain.
To bring it round to a very positive note, we are celebrating the success of Scottish food and drink in the next fortnight. The Government needs to get its act together. It needs to show farmers and food producers the way forward. We simply cannot produce high-quality, world-renowned food and drink products unless the Government gets behind farmers, gets them out of the dark and gives them further clarity.
I move amendment S6M-00990.2, to leave out from “laments” to end and insert:
“calls on the Scottish Government to launch a comprehensive ‘farm to fork’ review of Scotland’s food policy as a key part of Scotland’s economic recovery from COVID-19 to ensure a resilient UK-wide food supply chain; understands the importance of the UK internal market for Scottish food and drink, worth £4.5 billion; recognises that Scottish independence would irrevocably damage the food and drink industry; calls on the Scottish Government to implement a public procurement policy that increases the use of Scottish produce; urges the Scottish Government to publish, with urgency, the Farming and Food Production Future Policy Group’s findings and give clarity and direction on Scotland’s future farm policy, and asks the Scottish Government to recognise and support the calls in an open letter from Scotland’s food and drink sector to embed automation in Scottish Government funding programmes to support productivity and the development of higher quality jobs, and to work with the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership to continue to promote the industry as a career pathway through apprenticeships and other schemes.”
I begin by saying thank you on behalf of Labour members to Scotland’s food and drink sector. Thank you to our farmers and crofters who, in the face of the uncertainty of Brexit and the lack of direction that we have had on the future of agricultural support, continue to deliver world-class quality food that Scotland is rightly proud of. Thank you to our fishers, who, after being let down by the post-Brexit deal and completely omitted from the SNP-Green coalition agreement, continue to play their part in our nation’s food security. Thank you to our shop workers who, while we were able to work from home, continued to work on the front line, along with producers, processors, wholesalers and deliverers, put the food and drink on our shelves to keep the nation fed during the pandemic. Thank you to the more than 18,000 food and drink businesses in Scotland, which turn over £14 billion a year, for employing more than 115,000 people.
The food and drink sector makes an immense and growing contribution to Scotland’s economy, and Labour supports the aim in the Government’s paper “Ambition 2030” to keep that growth going and to double turnover to £30 billion by 2030. However, that sector is facing enormous challenges in keeping those shelves full, not least because of the double whammy of the pandemic and Brexit.
This week, the Food and Drink Federation warned that chronic staff shortages have left Scotland’s food industry at crisis point. In a letter to the UK and Scottish Governments, the federation’s industry partners appeal to those Governments to get their act together when it comes to access to labour and support for the sector. It makes stark reading. Its survey of businesses in the sector found that 93 per cent reported job vacancies, 90 per cent described those vacancies as hard to fill and 97 per cent said they will struggle to fill vacancies in the future. The letter is clear:
“We have now reached crisis point putting the growth, viability and security of many Scottish businesses in jeopardy, with knock on impacts for consumers. We need action now to save Christmas.”
That letter was backed up today by the National Farmers Union Scotland, when it wrote to the UK Government to highlight the impact of the labour shortage. There is no more obvious illustration of that crisis than the current lack of heavy goods vehicle drivers and the impact that that is having on, for example, getting milk to processors, an issue that is highlighted by the NFUS in its letter.
I recognise that, in the short term, we need to urgently break down the barriers that the UK Government has put in the way of access to overseas labour.
The member was at the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee this morning, where this issue came up. Does he recognise that there is a shortage of HGV drivers across Europe? Lots of effort can be put into attracting new people in, but, if countries such as Germany are facing exactly the same problem, we will be competing with them. This is not a problem just for the UK and Scotland.
It would be unfair to say that the failure to be able to access overseas labour is not impacting that problem. However, I recognise that some of the labour shortages that we face today are caused by a multitude of structural factors that go beyond Brexit and the pandemic.
It is also important to highlight that there is also a difference between a labour shortage and a skills shortage. That means doing more to train our own workforce to ensure that people have the skills to meet the demand in the labour market and to ensure that they are paid a decent wage; it also means taking a fresh look at our supply chains. The food and drink sector’s hard work and innovation during the pandemic mitigated the worst impact of the sudden shift in demand from the food service sector to the food retailer and of the halt in people being able to move freely, but the vulnerability of supply chains to major upheaval was clear. The capacity to adjust rapidly is seriously limited, and we cannot ignore the precarious nature of our food and drink system, which is under enormous strain.
The sector has responded well to the crisis, but we should not be dependent on a largely reactive response. We need to have a far more strategic and joined-up approach to managing our food and drink system, and we need robust contingency planning to ensure that the sector is prepared for future emergencies. We need a more cohesive and comprehensive policy on food—from the farm to the fork to waste—through a proper national food?plan.
At the centre of that plan must be the aims of embedding farming and food production at every level of education and having a far bigger focus on procuring and promoting local food and drink. It simply cannot be sustainable that the majority of the fish that we eat are imported while the majority that we catch are exported. The Scottish Government, local authorities, the national health service and other public bodies spend £11 billion a year on goods and services, including food, but for far too long public procurement has had a narrow focus on price and cost reduction. We have failed to maximise the benefits of low-carbon local supply chains and to minimise the vulnerabilities and risks from an overreliance on international supply chains.
Key to changing that is how we support our local food producers. Labour has long advocated the development of local food strategies, but that cannot involve the top-down approach that is all too common with the Government. Support for the sector must be local. It cannot involve central organisations and agencies simply handing down grants to local businesses.
I absolutely agree with Brian Whittle. Local procurement has many advantages, including supporting businesses, reducing our carbon footprint and reducing food poverty. However, doing that depends on giving local businesses the opportunities to bid for procurement contracts.
To come back to my point about local food strategies, we need intense on-the-ground support for local businesses that addresses, for example, digital and logistical infrastructure in order to drive the high-value sales that we need while tackling the skills, confidence and capacity challenges that many of our small and micro businesses face.
The importance of food and drink goes beyond their crucial economic importance. They impact on our health, our environment and our record on animal welfare. For far too long, far too many people in Scotland have lacked adequate access to food, exposing the gross inequalities that we face today. In a nation that provides so much outstanding food and drink, it is to our nation’s shame that many children in Scotland still go to bed hungry at night. Although our food and drink sector in Scotland has grown, so too has the scandal of?food poverty.
It is absolutely right that we celebrate the successes of Scotland’s?food and drink, as we will during food and drink fortnight, which begins this weekend. However, we need to rethink how we approach access to food in this country, and that means recognising that access to food is a fundamental right. It was deeply disappointing that the Government did not deliver a dedicated and comprehensive good food nation bill in the previous session of Parliament. It is not good enough to simply blame the pandemic, because the commitment to deliver that bill was made at the start of the previous session, long before any of us had even heard of Covid.
A bold good food nation bill is an opportunity for Scotland to lead the way on environmental sustainability, healthy eating and animal welfare, and to work with our trade unions to drive up terms and conditions for our food and drink workforce who, too often, are some of Scotland’s lowest-paid workers. Crucially, we need to enshrine in law the right to food, which would pave the way for a clear duty on our public bodies, with clear targets for action backed up by an independent statutory body to ensure that that action is delivered.
The cabinet secretary said that the Government will introduce a good food nation bill early in this session of Parliament, but she also said that the right to food would be in a different piece of legislation. However, the cabinet secretary did not say when we will see that legislation that will enshrine in law the right to food, so I hope that she will clarify that later in the debate.
If the Government fails to deliver the right to food, Labour will do so, through a member’s bill from my colleague Rhoda Grant. That would build on the work of the Scottish Food Coalition and Elaine Smith in the previous session.
In moving Labour’s amendment, I ask all members to make a clear commitment to a dedicated and bold good food nation bill in this session of Parliament that has tackling poverty at its heart, and to introducing a meaningful right to food in Scotland.
I move amendment S6M-00990.1, to insert at end:
“; condemns the unacceptable level of food poverty in Scotland and recognises that the ever-rising use of foodbanks in Scotland is morally unjustifiable in a country where fresh, quality food is plentiful; notes that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food insecurities and highlighted the urgency for a Good Food Nation Bill, and believes that enshrining the right to food in Scots law should be an early priority for the Scottish Government in the current parliamentary session.”
This is the first opportunity that I have had to address Parliament since I stood down as leader of my party, and I want to thank all those who have sent me kind wishes in the past few weeks. Perhaps the old adage that you are never more popular than when you are dead is true.
Today we have a wide-ranging debate covering food and drink fortnight, the pandemic, Brexit, food poverty, farm support and climate change. It just shows how important the food and drink sector is to our economy, our way of life and the future of the planet.
We will vote for the Labour amendment, because it quite rightly includes a significant reference to food poverty in a food-rich nation. We will also vote for the coalition Government’s motion, because there is not very much there to disagree with. We will, however, vote against the Conservative amendment, because it bizarrely excludes any reference to the disruption that Brexit has caused. I know that many Conservative members supported Brexit, but to completely ignore it is rather naive and does not address its real challenges and consequences.
Scotland’s food and drink sector is world class. In my constituency alone, we have langoustine, porridge oats, whisky, and barley for producing that whisky, berries and, the most important product of all, broccoli, which is produced all across north-east Fife. Those products are an important part of our economy and are big employers in north-east Fife. However, the sector is under considerable and immediate pressure from the double impacts of Brexit and the pandemic. Costs of labour and materials are going through the roof at the moment and there are massive shortages on both fronts. That is affecting the primary producers and the supply chain. The whole production system has been disrupted, which is having massive consequences for the sector.
We are seeing that in the shortage of drivers, pickers and processors—right down to the hospitality sector. There is a massive problem with labour shortages at the moment, which is why I support the call that the NFUS made today for a 12-month Covid recovery visa and for a review of the seasonal workers scheme. That has just worked this year; it has just got the sector by, but there is deep anxiety about future years. We are already seeing the sector making decisions about future investment. We cannot afford to have a loss of confidence at such a critical time when we are already facing pressure because of Brexit and the pandemic.
In the Northern Isles, there are significant problems with the supply chains, the ferries and freight. We need to focus on the coalition Government’s responsibilities as well as pointing out its mistakes.
There are also medium-term pressures. There is deep frustration in the agricultural sector about the dithering that has gone on for some years now. By 2032, there has to be a 31 per cent cut in agricultural emissions. That is only 11 years away. The Government has started the process and, to be fair to the new cabinet secretary, she has just started in her new role. However, we will probably be a couple of years into those 11 years before we finally see a policy. The NFUS has quite rightly talked about the inertia that is being created by the current system. There is a pressure towards the status quo and a lack of change, but we will need to make significant changes if we are going to meet that 31 per cent target in 11 years’ time. The coalition Government needs to move on from the snail’s pace at which it is operating.
The future policy group was set up three years ago and we still have not heard a word from it. The results from the farmer-led groups were published last week, but there is a new consultation on the back of that work. Next year, we are going to have another consultation on the back of the firm proposals. I presume that there will be a report on the back of that consultation, and we might actually see a bill on the back of that.
WWF is absolutely right when it says that the longer it takes for the new policy to be developed, the harder it will be for farmers to meet that 31 per cent target by 2032, which is only 11 years away.
It is hardly a quick deal. It has taken at least three years to produce even one recommendation from a group that was established in the previous session of Parliament.
Of course we need to consult the farmers, but if we endlessly consult and make no decisions, it does not help the farmers a jot. Mr Fairlie will know from his discussions with the farmers that they are frustrated about the lack of decision making. We need to move on, because they have a massive job to do to meet the 31 per cent emissions reduction target by 2032, which is only 11 years away. There are massive tensions involved in protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change while ensuring that Scottish food production is robust and sustainable. [
I need to conclude soon.
There are tensions between forestry and productive land, between biodiversity and energy crops, and between domestic production and offshoring. Decisions on all those things are difficult, but delaying them will not make them any easier.
I wish the cabinet secretary well in dealing with those massive challenges. Where we can, we will support her and work together to meet them, but she needs to start making decisions.
It is quite right that
Parliament celebrates Scottish food and drink fortnight.
“The art of a country always has its roots in the soil—it is the natural conditions and products that determine the general character of the national cuisine.”
She was talking about our natural larder.
Argyll and Bute is a natural larder, with a lush landscape, nutrient-filled waters and passionate food producers. Wherever you go today in Argyll and Bute, its wonderful food and drink is only a footstep away. Last week, I ate langoustine in Oban, locally caught sea bream served with vegetables from our own allotment, and I toasted a sadly departed friend, Jenny Compton-Bishop from Jura, with local gin.
In Argyll and Bute, people know the strength of locally, sustainably produced, raised or caught produce. Shops proudly display “Shop Local, Eat Local” posters. My local shop in Port Charlotte gives locals and visitors the chance to buy local produce, and that is replicated across the island and Argyll and Bute. The towns that I visited during recess—Oban, Lochgilphead and Campbeltown—have new delis and food shops opening, and established shops are expanding their ranges. The Scottish Government’s £10 million investment in Scotland Loves Local is helping to revitalise our high streets by encouraging people back to them.
Throughout the pandemic, the food and drink sector has worked together for the common good to support communities. For example, Argyll Bakeries employed a chef who prepared ready-made meals, which became key stock items across the constituency. Distilleries provided hand sanitiser and local hauliers supported volunteers to distribute food packages. As the First Minister said yesterday, co-operation and working together allow ideas to come to fruition with far better outcomes.
In 1784, the French traveller Faujas de Saint-Fond told of the variety and abundance of Argyll’s table. On the island of Mull, he described the breakfast table
“elegantly covered with … plates of smoked beef, cheese … fresh eggs, salted herrings, butter, milk, and cream … currant jelly, conserve of myrtle; tea, coffee, three kinds of bread and Jamaica rum”.
Sadly, Mr Rennie, there was no broccoli.
My stomach starts to rumble when I hear of such nice things. However, will Jenni Minto acknowledge that some of the sectors that she is talking about—the inshore fisheries sector, the salmon farming industry and agriculture—have real fears about the new coalition that the SNP has formed with the Green Party?
The coalition that we have formed with the Green Party will look at everything in the round—it will look at the way in which we produce items and the environment, and I think that that can only be positive for our natural larder. [
I will not take an intervention; I will continue. Argyll and the Isles Tourism—[
.] I will not take another intervention; I will continue.
Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative is known as Wild About Argyll, and has established taste-of-place trails. They support small-scale, high-quality specialist producers, giving visitors an opportunity to speak to local people and sample their very special produce. If people have not visited Argyll, I suggest that they come and discover them; I know that the trails will capture people’s imagination and captivate their taste buds.
For spirits and beer, there are more than 20 distilleries and breweries, all using the natural larder of Argyll and Bute in their processes. The water, the botanicals and the peat all enhance their flavour and, with the stunning scenery, where better to raise a toast?
There is coffee and cake from Southend to Dalmally in phone boxes, cafes and horse boxes—we find a lot of uses for horse boxes in Argyll—where people can find wonderful home baking, to be washed down with a mug of Tiree Crofter tea or Argyll roasted coffee.
There is also the seafood trail. Loch Fyne herrings were historically celebrated for their delicious flavour and were sent in barrels to Edinburgh. As Finlay Calder—I am sorry; that is the wrong name. I am getting my politicians and my rugby players mixed up—they are both from Dumfries and Galloway, I believe. [
.] There is also langoustine, crab, lobster, salmon, mussels, oysters, queenies, halibut and white fish—the rich bounty of our sea—and artisanal sea salt and kelp.
On the farm produce trail, we have lamb raised on the hilly uplands, Highland cattle on the less favoured land, milk in Kintyre and Bute and, of course, barley for whisky; and some producers are diversifying into ice cream. We also have the new vegan trail—Rothesay’s Bute Island Foods is the home of Sheese; it is a manufacturer and world exporter of the vegan cheese.
As I said in my first speech in the chamber, a permanent solution must be found, and quickly, for the Rest and Be Thankful. We also need a reliable and versatile ferry fleet. Everyone depends on being able to travel throughout Argyll and Bute safely and easily. I am pleased that the minister and his team are bringing new energy and commitment to solving those issues, and I thank the transport minister for his earlier detailed update on the Rest and Be Thankful.
Of course, our food and drink businesses are currently focused on keeping the shelves full as they face huge labour shortages and keeping employees safe as the pandemic continues, as well as on getting to grips with the new processes, paperwork and information technology services involved in exporting their products to the EU as a result of the chaos of Brexit.
One shellfish operator I spoke to exported 60 per cent of his catch to the EU in 2019; now, he no longer exports there, and has to find new markets. Thankfully, Scottish Development International has done amazing work in that area, but the food and drink industry needs Scottish Government support to enable it to adapt its produce to meet the requirements of new buyers. This morning at the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, we heard evidence from the food and drink industry about its fears. It is imperative that those fears are heard and that urgent action is taken.
It is said that you are what you eat, and that is true of nations as well as individuals. Argyll and Bute’s larder, and Scotland’s larder, are vital to our health, wealth and wellbeing. Imagine what we could do with those resources in an independent Scotland.
It goes without saying that Scotland offers some of the finest produce in the world, and
I am delighted to say that much of it comes from my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries. The area is richly blessed with companies and businesses, both big and small, that have gained either national or international recognition for their produce. The Lactalis Group creamery in Stranraer produces some of the finest dairy products, which are sold in more than 60 countries, including its Seriously brand.
Lactalis is not alone in making its mark. We also have a number of smokehouses, such as Marrbury smokehouse, the Galloway smokehouse and the new diversification project at Potterland smokery, with its innovative new smoked lamb, or lamb ham. Those businesses are regularly recognised for their excellent produce, ranging from smoked salmon, trout and seafood to game products.
More recently, Bladnoch distillery has witnessed its whisky exports and production range increase dramatically under the leadership of master distiller Nick Savage. It is not alone: Five Kingdoms brewery and Sulwath Brewers, together with Dark Art and Hills and Harbour gin, have all tasted sweet success and growth—post-Brexit and mid-Covid, I might add.
Despite that, the SNP Government is still failing to give our food and drink industry the support that it rightly deserves. The Government is outstanding at making announcements on things such as the good food nation bill, but then it forgets to deliver them.
What about what the UK Government still has to deliver to Scotland to meet the £170 million shortfall for agriculture, as well as the paltry £14 million that we received as the replacement for the European maritime and fisheries fund, which should have been £62 million? What response would the member give to that?
The response that I would give is that the agriculture sector in this country is far more concerned and worried about the future, given the lack of direction shown by the cabinet secretary’s Government.
The Scotland Food & Drink partnership has already come up with a strategy called “Ambition 2030”, which aims to promote farming and fishing, as well as food and drink. It brings together the food producers and processors that make food and drink Scotland’s most valuable industry, employing 47,000 people and contributing £3.9 billion gross value added to the economy from a turnover of around £11 billion.
We all want to ensure that the sector continues to be recognised as a world leader in responsible, sustainable and profitable growth, but that can be achieved only by the Government working in tandem with the Scottish food and drink industry—from farmers and growers to processors, wholesalers, distributors and retailers—in the drive to promote the sector by providing greater resources and incentives in order to create the workforce that future growth demands. We need to create high-quality jobs and rewarding employment that will subsequently encourage more young people to consider the sector as a worthwhile and rewarding career choice, and we need to see far more apprenticeships and other schemes being offered than at present, especially now in the wake of the pandemic, when morale and mental health among the younger generation remain critical.
The Scotland Food & Drink partnership wants to encourage more young people into farming and fishing and at the same time improve Scotland’s diet and nutrition. We need to encourage a more healthy approach to eating. That must be a top priority, given that our consumption of fruit and vegetables remains disturbingly low. There has been a lamentable lack of progress on healthy eating in Scotland. Mean fruit and vegetable consumption stands at 3.2 portions a day, short of the target of 5, and the grams per day intake of fruit and veg has not changed since 2001—in fact, it has dropped somewhat.
Agriculture remains very much at the heart of my constituency, but yet again the SNP Government has failed it at every turn. We are still waiting for the Government to publish its plans on future farming funding, which were promised by the end of 2020. Although I endorse the high level of stakeholder engagement that we have seen, there comes a time when the Government must make its future plans clear, and it has absolutely failed in that. That does not surprise me, especially as it took the Government two years to even arrive at a simple consultation process.
It is little wonder that the NFUS last year described the Government’s failure as
“a disaster in the making for Scottish agriculture.”
Indeed, the same organisation previously slated it for having “no vision” on future farming policy, or even where it wants to be in the near future. Once again, I would urge the Government to stop the dilly-dally and delay and, with urgency, bring forward its vision and supporting policies for the future of rural and agriculture support. With farmers, crofters and growers facing huge challenges but nevertheless stepping up to the mark to do their bit to address climate change and biodiversity loss, they need this Government’s support. Farmers must be given clarity now and given a clear direction on Scotland’s future farm policy—of that there is no doubt.
Earlier this month, Mairi Gougeon launched a consultation on a local food strategy whereby more local production would be encouraged in order to reduce the distance that food travels, but that is something that should have been done long ago. Public sector procurement policies and procedures must be urgently reviewed. It is quite remarkable that a food processor in Wales sends truck loads of meals to some of our hospitals and schools in Scotland. That is unacceptable and one of the reasons why the Scottish Conservatives have been calling for a comprehensive farm to fork review of Scotland’s food policy that aims to boost demand for our own produce and improve public procurement that utilises Scottish produce and, more importantly, reduces food waste and food miles.
We stand with and fully support the sector in its drive towards greater productivity while attempting to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. The Food and Drink Federation Scotland plans to launch its road map at COP26 in two months’ time. It will look at the actions that businesses can take in a host of areas, including packaging, manufacturing, distribution and storage. It will also point to the role that customers have in reducing the carbon footprint of food. Clearly the federation has a vision—it is just a pity that this Government and its ministers appear not to follow that good example.
The Food and Drink Federation Scotland pointed out in advance of this debate that food and drink is Scotland’s largest manufacturing sector. The sector employs some 47,000 people, contributes £3.9 billion gross value added to the Scottish economy and has a turnover of £11 billion. This is serious stuff, so it is baffling that there is so much point scoring going on in the chamber when we are trying to talk about such important issues.
Something else that is baffling is how on earth the Scottish Tories could lodge an amendment that simply writes off Brexit as if it made no contribution to the problems and challenges that the sector in Scotland faces right now. I am sure that people will be baffled by that. Rachael Hamilton suggested that the SNP Government should get its act together; in truth, the federation has come forward with clear proposals that it wants both the UK Government and the Scottish Government to take up.
It is worth stating what FDF Scotland, Scotland Food & Drink, NFU Scotland, Scottish Bakers, Opportunity North East, the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, the Scottish Seafood Alliance and the Scottish Wholesale Association have asked for. Those organisations asked the Scottish Government to
“Ensure support for automation is embedded in Scottish Government funding programmes where it supports productivity and the development of higher quality jobs”.
That is a straightforward ask. The organisations also asked the Scottish Government to
“Work with the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership to continue to promote the industry as a great career destination, and to provide opportunities through apprenticeships and other schemes”.
I hope that the minister will respond to those two specific asks, which that group of organisations think would make a difference.
I thank the member for raising those points. I have responded to the industry on its asks of the Scottish Government, because we are committed to working with it.
On a few issues, we are already implementing some of what it is asking for. For example, the food processing, marketing and co-operation grant scheme, which was launched last month, will help with the automation element. I reassure the member that I have responded and that work is on-going.
That represents someone taking a more serious approach to what is going on, as opposed to trying to score political points.
The organisations made asks of the UK Government, too, and I ask Tory members whether they support those calls, even if it is not in their gift to respond to them. The sector asked the UK Government to
“Introduce a 12 month covid recovery visa for the food and drink supply chain—to deal with immediate pressures on the industry and allow employers” in Scotland
“to expand recruitment to EU and other overseas workers”.
The sector also asked that the UK Government
“Commission an urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee of the needs of the food and drink sector” and
“Waive the fees to employment visas for the food and drink supply chain until 2022”.
Those are three specific asks that the sector says would make a difference. I do not know whether Rachael Hamilton wants to respond to them.
I was going to respond on the two asks in the open letter that we included in our amendment. I am glad that members on the Labour benches agree with them and that the cabinet secretary has responded to them, albeit not fully enough.
On the asks about labour shortages, we have acknowledged today that there is a perfect storm. There is a whole host of reasons for labour shortages, which are also an issue in France, Germany and Italy. There are calls to the UK Government to produce a plan to invest in skills in our domestic workforce. I know that the UK Government is doing that and I fully support the approach.
From that, I hope that the Parliament can come together, get behind what the Food and Drink Federation is calling for and make it clear to the UK Government that such measures should be taken if we are to do something to protect jobs and the industry.
I want to highlight that food has to be affordable. There has been a rise in the number of food banks since 2010. In 2010, I do not think that there were any food banks in Scotland—there were certainly very few—but they are now commonplace in every city, town and village in the country. Again, there are things that the Parliament can do. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out that social security should be strong enough for all of us to rely on when we need a lifeline. It says:
“A cut of £20 a week to Universal Credit”— a working tax credit—
“scheduled for 6 October, will impose the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since the modern welfare state began, more than 70 years ago.”
I hope that we can build a consensus and that Scottish Tory members will join, I am sure, every other member in calling on the UK Government not to go ahead with the £20 a week cut, which will drive food poverty even higher in Scotland.
I very much welcome the motion in the name of the cabinet secretary. The recent story of Scotland’s food and drink sector is remarkable. I have been involved with the industry for virtually my entire working life, and I am incredibly proud of it. The industry has shown an outstanding degree of progress and development over a relatively short time, and it has evoked a total shift in the global perception of our country.
Not so very long ago, we Scots had the only slightly undeserved reputation for eating nothing that had not been deep fried, including Mars bars. Tourists came to Scotland for the scenery, the castles and the history. They certainly did not come because of our reputation as a nation of gourmet food lovers. Yet, ironically, we have always grown, raised, caught, harvested and landed some of the finest produce in the world. The problem was—and, to some degree, still is—that, as a nation, we have never really appreciated what is here on our doorstep. In our fields, rivers and seas is an abundance of some of the world’s most sought-after natural ingredients.
Scotland and fine food were far from synonymous, except to a very few who were in the know. The vast bulk of our best produce went straight to the kitchens of some of the best hotels and restaurants around the world, as we allowed the “stack it high and sell it low” principle to take hold of our own diet. We dined out on the rise of fast food—highly sugared, highly salted, instant and available 24 hours a day for convenience.
We stopped cooking. We lost generations of knowledge and skills and the ability to home cook really good, nutritious, tasty and locally grown food. By losing that, we lose a lot more than just those basic skills. We lose understanding. We lose an opportunity for communication. We lose a connection to the food that we eat and, added to that, a connection with one another that we can get only by sitting round a full table of fabulous food with friends and family. This debate is about far more than economics.
Over the past 20 years or so, we have finally realised that and have regained our love for and appreciation of what good food looks like, tastes like and smells like. Whether it is street food festivals doing street food theatre, seafood shacks on the beach cooking what was caught that morning or restaurants with two Michelin stars, Scottish produce is now recognised, celebrated and—above all—cooked, eaten and enjoyed throughout this country and across the globe.
Incidentally, I was pleased to see the line in the Government motion about
“encouraging public kitchens to source more local food”.
I would simply like some public kitchens to be more locally based. In Perth and Kinross, school dinners are going to be centrally produced outwith the district and then delivered to school kitchens for reheating. That goes against everything that we are talking about today.
The food and drink industry hit a moment in time when there was a coming together of ideas and imagination and a readiness in consumers to get involved. It was exciting, it was transformative and the industry grabbed the opportunity with everything that it had and ran with it, creating the fastest growing sector in Scotland’s economy.
Part of that transformation was down to action taken by the Scottish Government, which is a fact that should be recognised. The establishment of a national food and drink policy under the leadership of Richard Lochhead was pivotal. Scotland had never had a national food and drink policy before, but neither had any other country in Europe. What that demonstrated to the industry was that the Government of the day understood that the industry had an opportunity and that people were ready for it. With real collaboration between industry and Government, great things can happen, and they did.
In 2007-08, the target for the industry was to be worth £13 billion by 2013. That target was smashed years early, which demonstrated that the collaboration was working—industry and Government working hand in hand, communicating and delivering.
I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a member of NFU Scotland.
Does the member recognise, as someone who is close to the farming industry, the frustration in the sector at the continued lack of detail about what future support will look like? Does the member also agree that farmers continue to be left in the dark about plans for future funding?
I accept that farming communities have been frustrated, and I have made that point to the cabinet secretary. I said to Willie Rennie earlier that the farming community would be much happier to see a policy that it is part of, that it helped to shape and that helps to make sure that we deliver our climate commitments but we also have a food industry that is still about producing food.
I will continue with what I was saying.
I have lost my place.
When you are on a roll, why not go further? The Scottish Government did that and still is. The new target of £30 billion in turnover by 2030 is massively ambitious, but we have done it before so we can do it again. It is challenging but it is achievable. With the industry and the Government working together and sharing an ambition, anything is possible, and I know that we can hit the target again.
Challenges there are aplenty, and two of the biggest could not have been envisaged: the extent of damage from Brexit and the consequences of the Covid pandemic. One example of that is that East of Scotland Growers has just destroyed 2.5 million heads of broccoli and 1.5 million cauliflowers in the past couple of weeks. It is possible that it is about to do the same again, because it simply does not have the storage and capacity to move its products.
FDF Scotland tells us that the Brexit-related issues that its members face generally fall into three different groups: companies such as seed potato producers being unable to export to the EU due to the terms of the EU exit deal; companies struggling with increased costs; and those—predominantly shellfish farmers from the west coast—whose products have short shelf lives having found that increased delays due to bureaucracy mean that they cannot get their products to market in time.
No number of trade deals with countries on the far side of the world will compensate the businesses that are being thwarted in their attempt to maintain access to the world’s largest single market on the other side of the North Sea. We have all seen the gaps on the shelves in our shops and heard the stories about the shortage of lorry drivers. Apparently, big pay increases have been offered to drivers, so at least an ill wind is blowing somebody some good.
We are witnessing Brexit getting real. Paying lorry drivers a bit more is only the tip of the iceberg as far as increased freight costs are concerned; I have heard that there are cases of the cost of shipping containers escalating from £2,000 to £20,000 over the past six months. Nobody is going to make any money on Australian trade deals with those kinds of numbers.
We have seen it in the treatment of our fisherfolk, our soft fruit farmers and our seed potato merchants—being part of the UK is harming our industry. The UK Government is acting as a roadblock and is preventing us from getting to where we need to be, literally as well as figuratively. I trust the Scottish Government to do everything in its power to help our food and drink industry and to find ways around the roadblocks. We all know—which is why I could not support anything that the Tories put forward in their amendment—that the best and simplest answer should be in our hands: remove the roadblock entirely and become a normal independent country.
Is it a generous six minutes, Presiding Officer?
I am delighted to speak in a debate to support our food and drink industry. Returning members will know of my long-standing efforts to put more of Scotland’s food and drink products on to Scottish dinner tables. I have always argued, and will continue to argue, that, in doing so, we can achieve real success in dealing with Scotland’s poor health record.
Presiding Officer, you will be glad to know that I am bringing all that passion into my new environment brief. I believe that this is an area that can bring benefits and sustainability and support Scotland’s drive towards net zero.
I will use my time today to discuss the whole chain of food and drink production, from farming to processing to procurement. No member in the chamber would dispute that our farmers are among the best in the world. We charge them with producing high-quality food, maintaining the highest level of animal welfare, paying the living wage and leading the custodianship of the countryside. They take on those responsibilities not just willingly but enthusiastically. Today, more than ever, we ask them to work in a way that protects our environment and can deliver a sustainable future.
Farmers want to protect the environment—it is quite literally the foundation of their business. In all my conversations with farmers across the south of Scotland, I hear that there is a shared desire to innovate and become greener. In fact, they are so enthusiastic that we now see NFU Scotland and WWF Scotland united in challenging the Scottish Government to move faster on the issue. Sadly, though, they are under sustained attack from a vocal minority who insist on misrepresenting our farming and food-producing communities, criticising the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions—in particular, in livestock farming—while failing to acknowledge Scottish farmers’ success in reducing their carbon footprint.
I thank Michelle Thomson for that intervention, but I wonder if she would recognise that, on my very recent visit to a farm with NFU Scotland and a number of farmers, they suggested that the price that they are now getting for beef and sheep is one of the highest prices they have had for a long, long time. There you go.
The reality is that Scottish farmers are leading the way in reducing emissions in rearing grass-fed livestock and continuing to innovate towards net zero at every opportunity. Our farming sector should be held up as an example to the world, not done down in pursuit of an easy headline. After all, the NFUS has set a net zero farming target of 2035, way ahead of the Scottish Government’s net zero target. That is something that every MSP should support and celebrate—yet, at the heart of this Government, we now have ministers whose track record is one of criticism, not commendation.
We have ministers who, rather than working with our food producers and encouraging and supporting innovation in the green economy, would prefer to shut the whole industry down. We have a Scottish Government minister who—quite openly—wants to eliminate our world-renowned salmon farming industry. She did not even bother to engage with salmon farmers, or at least to discuss the innovations that they are now deploying. She did not even bother to look at a map to find out where those farms are. No, she simply and simplistically decided—without, it appears, any basic knowledge of the industry—that she would like it gone. It is good to see that the Greens are already so well aligned with the SNP’s approach of headlines now, details never. It is no wonder that the Scottish fishing industry is concerned about
“an increasingly hostile environment for” the industry as a consequence of this new coalition. I sometimes suspect that the Greens will really be happy only when we are all living up a tree in the Trossachs, foraging for nuts and berries and washing our clothes in the river, all the while importing more food—
I thank the member for taking an intervention, because I have to address some of the statements that he has come out with. I do not know whether he has actually read the co-operation agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party, which lays what he says absolutely to rest. Some of the accusations that he is making are complete nonsense.
Here you go—I have the agreement right here. It does not even mention fishing—[
.] So, you are denying that one of your Scottish Government ministers says that they want to shut down the salmon industry. Is that what you are saying, cabinet secretary? As you well know, it is not true.
If you give me a minute.
At a time when we should be looking forward, promoting new technologies and ideas to decarbonise our most successful industries such as food and drink, the focus of the Scottish Greens is firmly on putting Scotland into reverse gear, and they now sit at the heart of the Scottish Government. They must be the least green Green Party on this planet. The Scottish Government should be embracing and encouraging the innovation that is taking place in our food and drink industry. Instead, it has joined forces with a party whose idea of innovation is to turn off the economy.
Beyond production, we need to consider where we process food. There is so little that is processed in Scotland. We send far too much of our produce out the country to be processed. How can it be right, in the country hosting COP26, that there are food producers who are being forced to ship their products hundreds or even thousands of miles to be processed and packaged? Surely we could do more to support local food processing, building new local industries and cutting their carbon footprint at the same time.
Finally, I turn to public food procurement. Quality Scottish produce on the dinner tables of our schools and hospitals—[
I am just finishing.
Surely that has to be a no-brainer. Even here, despite the matter being raised constantly in the chamber by me and by others, the Scottish Government has failed to act. It is entirely within the Scottish Government’s power to make the route from field to fork as short as possible and to support our food producers, yet the much-heralded good food nation bill has continually been kicked down the road. It should have been the vehicle to address many of the issues that we are discussing but, so far, the Scottish Government has failed to turn promises into action.
As I said earlier, we charge our farmers and food producers with the highest standards, yet the Scottish Government, through the public procurement policy, does not do enough to recognise the cost of those standards, and it failed to support our farmers in the way that it could and should have done.
We have a fantastic food and drink industry in Scotland, but we are being let down by the Scottish Government, which prefers to lay the blame at the feet of others rather than acknowledge its own failings. There is so much that it could do to support our food and drink industry. It is time that warm words were finally backed up with actions.
As other members have said, food poverty is a pressing issue in Scotland. Like other human rights, the right to food is already protected under international law, but we need only consider the unacceptable levels of food insecurity in Scotland to know that that protection is not happening on the ground. Of course, that is, first and foremost, a legacy of Tory austerity, but there are things that we can do in Scotland.
Enshrining a right to food has been a long-standing priority of the Scottish Greens. That is why we used budget negotiations in the previous session to secure the extension of free school meals, and it is why a right to food is part of the co-operation agreement between us and the Scottish Government in this session. That will form part of a human rights bill. It is about more than just a right to food, however. We need to act.
For one reason or another, as we have heard, the good food nation bill was waylaid in the previous session, and we have been clear that it will be progressed. It will underpin on a statutory basis the work that is already being done across the Scottish Government to support the good food nation policy. As we head into food and drink fortnight, we must acknowledge the food insecurity that persists in Scotland, and which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
However, tackling that is about more than providing the right to basic sustenance for our citizens. Food must mean more to us than a means to survival if we are truly to build a wellbeing economy. Food is at the heart of our daily life and our culture. It is the focal point of occasions—community gatherings, festivals and celebrations. [
.] No. I will not take an intervention; I will keep going.
Today, by celebrating the people who produce and procure our food and drink, and who play a vital role in our lives, we must also acknowledge the challenges that they face. It has been a torrid time for food producers in Scotland. The reckless Tory Brexit stripped away a vital EU workforce and threatened the standards of our food for deregulated trade deals, and there are now serious disruptions in the supply chain.
We saw in the first part of the pandemic that people stocked up to ensure that they could feed themselves and their families. Supermarkets benefited from that surge in demand, but that was not necessarily reflected down the supply chain, which led to shortages. Now, there is a different reason for shortages. As well as the loss of lorry drivers, many food producers do not have the labour to harvest what they have grown or raised. We heard earlier from Jim Fairlie the heartbreaking story of 2.5 million heads of broccoli having to be thrown away due to the lack of a labour force for harvest. In addition, shellfish have been left to rot on the quayside because producers face export challenges.
However, Brexit is not the only threat to our food supply. Farmers are dealing with an increased number of extreme weather events because of the climate crisis, and are spending more to mitigate the effects of floods and droughts. It will therefore be increasingly important for food producers to have a direct relationship with their local communities. Over the summer, I met food producers and providers across my region, from beef farmers in Orkney to oyster farmers in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and from Highland market gardeners growing vegetables for hundreds of families to a community food-growing and kitchen project in Argyll, feeding anyone who needs a meal.
It is clear to me that food is a central part of our communities and that they must have access to and involvement with that food resource. Eating well and being able to nourish ourselves and each other should be a right. Food in Scotland has returned to being a point of pride and pleasure, and we are fortunate to have a multitude of producers who care about the food that they make. In the face of our climate and nature emergencies, the right to food that is adequate, available and accessible is going to become even more pressing. [
.] I am sorry, but I am going to keep going. That has made me lose my place.
In the face of cruel policies from the UK Government and the focus on stigmatising those who cannot afford to eat well and enjoy their food, Scotland’s place as a good food nation has never been more important.
We can learn from our communities. During the pandemic, we saw local producers rise to the challenge of feeding their local communities, and people started to make local connections for procurement. We have the opportunity to take that further by redesigning our food systems so that people can access locally produced food.
Food is at the heart of so much of our lives, and we must eat to live. We have started to understand that access to good food will support us with good health and mental wellbeing. The co-operation agreement that we have struck with the Government recognises that producing high-quality food goes hand in hand with tackling both poverty and the climate emergency.
Scotland can be a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, Scotland can have a diverse pattern of land ownership and tenure that supports that, and Scotland can be a good food nation in which no one needs to go hungry.
I refer members to my register of interests, which shows that I am still a serving councillor in East Ayrshire Council.
I rise to speak in support of the motion and in support of Scotland’s larder and our wonderful producers. They have been tremendous throughout the pandemic, but have also struggled with the real and present challenges that are posed by Covid-19 and Brexit.
I will focus my contribution to the debate on how we can support our food and drinks sector by seeking to adopt right across Scotland a community wealth building approach that will see organisations such as local authorities, health boards, colleges and universities and other public bodies utilise their vast procurement spend within their localities. I am glad that the Scottish Government is currently consulting on the draft local food strategy, because it is hugely important for many policy areas.
Councils are the area with which I am most familiar. The collective council spend across Scotland last year was £23.9 billion, or 14 per cent of gross domestic product. Although a lot of that is taken up by education and social work budgets, a significant amount of money is spent on procurement of goods and services—and, incidentally, on wages, which circulate in local economies.
In my local authority area of East Ayrshire, which is one of two councils in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, the council has held the Soil Association’s food for life gold award for more than a decade, and is the only council in the UK to do so. Decisions that were taken at local level all those years ago, on the back of the Scottish Government’s hungry for success initiative, meant that community wealth building principles were at the heart of school food in East Ayrshire long before they came to the fore in the nation’s collective consciousness.
Elena Whitham mentioned what the East Ayrshire school estate has achieved. I pay tribute to Robin Gourlay—the guy who initiated the work and made the hungry for success initiative work by ensuring that the council brought local food into local schools. He was seconded to the Scottish Government and Scotland Food & Drink, where he made much bigger strides in getting better quality local food into schools across the country—far better than it was before the SNP came into Government in 2007.
I thank Jim Fairlie for that intervention. Recently, I was on a conference call with the Association for Public Service Excellence—APSE—and Robin Gourlay came on to the call. He has recently retired, so we paid tribute to all the massive work that he did.
East Ayrshire Council serves school lunches that contain very few processed foods. A large proportion—up to 70 per cent—of the food is locally sourced and 15 per cent is organic. All that is done with careful consideration of sustainability and environmental impact. Locally, that approach has resulted in suppliers growing their businesses to accommodate the increased demand for local food in school meals, thereby employing more local people, reducing food miles in the council’s carbon footprint and helping to create wealth that is retained locally. With the creation of 15 community food larders over the pandemic, East Ayrshire is also reducing local food waste and supporting dignified food provision in communities.
I thank Brian Whittle for that intervention. The thrust of my speech is around us seeking a way to passport that learning and experience across the country. The local food strategy and moving towards being a good food nation will do exactly that.
“Since 2008, East Ayrshire Council has recognised the connections between what we eat and learning, how food helps with our health and how we can support our local producers. We invest in the food on the plate and the value it has, with good quality sustainable meals now the norm in East Ayrshire. Our approach also plays an important role in community wealth building ... for which the Council has received funding to develop Scotland’s first regional approach to CWB through the Ayrshire Growth Deal. ... This means that we are committed to continuing to work with local businesses to support the local economy and to reduce our carbon footprint by continuing to source fresh local produce.”
During the height of the pandemic, East Ayrshire Council retained its school food contracts to ensure that local suppliers did not go under, and every week delivered a staggering 30,000 freshly prepared meals to families who were in receipt of free school meals. At Christmas, boxes also included an East Ayrshire gift card for each child, which gave a boost to local businesses by encouraging families to shop locally.
I turn my attention to a recent news story that emerged when local dairy business Mossgiel Organic Farm in Mauchline in my constituency won the milk contract for East Ayrshire Council. That contract not only supports the farm to grow, but has a huge benefit in terms of carbon and single-use plastics reduction. By installing refillable milk vending machines in every school and delivering supplies via an on-going move to an electric fleet, it is estimated that there will be a whopping reduction of approximately 400,000 pieces of single-use plastic from East Ayrshire primary schools every year.
Farmer Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel now joins other Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley producers, including We Hae Meat in Girvan, A & A Spittal of Auchinleck and Corrie Mains Farm of Mauchline, in capturing the hearts and bellies of weans across East Ayrshire. I am sure that others will agree that that is fantastic news and a model for replication where possible, in order to aid our growth as a good food nation.
Whether it is local sustainable eggs, poultry, pork, beef, fish, cheese, milk or dry goods, Scotland’s food and drink sector has much to offer our anchor organisations. In many areas just now, we have Scottish Government supported community wealth building initiatives, including—as a Scottish first—as part of our Ayrshire regional growth deal. In order to support the sector and our communities to recover from Covid and the uncertainties of Brexit, it is vital that we ensure that the learning and examples from those pilots are shared across the country.
As has been said already, there is no doubt that procurement is tricky and is often mired in seemingly unchangeable bureaucracy, but strong leadership and a compelling and urgent case for change can focus hearts and minds. From farm and sea to plate, let us make it local.
It has been great to see so many interventions being taken by members. However, from now on, interventions will have to be accommodated in the time allowance for each member. I call Martin Whitfield, to be followed by Michelle Thomson, who will be the last speaker in the open debate. Everybody who has participated in the debate must be in for the closing speeches.
Thank you for your indication with regard to interventions, Presiding Officer. It is a pleasure to follow Elena Whitham’s speech, and I draw attention to the connection that she made between good food and learning, which is essential.
Living in East Lothian, Scotland’s food and drink county, I need to start by mentioning and congratulating some of the best food and drink producers not only in Scotland, but in the world. With our bakers, smokers, breweries, distilleries, honey producers, preservers, fine independent coffee houses, restaurants and public houses, farmers markets and farm shops, food lies at the heart of East Lothian. That is due also to our fisheries and farmers, and the families and companies that draw from nature the products that are used in the food and drink industry. They have a love and care of food, and the pie producers and restaurateurs can not only name the farm that the produce comes from, but tell us who the farmer is because they have a relationship with them. They know the boat and the family that landed the lobster that sits on the plate.
That talks to the strength and love of food, not only in East Lothian, but across the south of Scotland and beyond. It talks about how food is an essential piece in the jigsaw of our society. During the pandemic, we saw the huge support from the Scottish public for their local producers and the outstanding products that are being reared, grown and manufactured on our doorstep.
That should be the case, because food is part of the foundation of life. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts food as one of the foundation stones of being human. It is woven into every fabric of our lives. However, there is another plate and another reality for many people who live in Scotland, which is that food is a rare resource. Food poverty is a reality for our neighbours and people who live in our communities.
We all know that food banks exist, and we rightly rail against the need for them. The Trussell Trust charity runs more than 420 food banks in Scotland, and there are more than 70 independent food banks across 20 local authorities here in Scotland. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 607 food parcels were delivered for children in Dumfries and Galloway, 383 parcels were delivered for children in the Scottish Borders, and 2,602 parcels were delivered for children in East Lothian.
In July, just over a month ago, my local food bank in Tranent handed out 254 three-day emergency food parcels to feed 606 people, 220 of whom were children. We live in a society in which 220 children cannot be fed by their families without charity and community support.
I make the point again that it is about time that we tackled the amount of food waste in our society. Something has to be wrong if we are wasting such an amount of food when people are going hungry.
Along with challenging the issue of food waste, which Brian Whittle rightly raises, we need to challenge the poverty that those families, some of whom are in work, are in. That talks to the universal credit cut that is coming and to the children’s payment that needs to be paid.
We need to do so much. This is a complex problem—we are all agreed on that—but we have solved complex problems before. We came up with a Covid vaccine in just over a year. We can solve these problems, if we genuinely want to do so.
It took 6,000kg of food, handed in and donated by people in my community, to feed those children.
In 2009, the Trussell Trust operated just one food bank in Scotland. In April 2017, it operated 52. Now, it operates 420.
This Government and the Westminster Government must do better. We have heard about—and it is right to talk about—the £11 billion that the Scottish Government and other public bodies spend on our infrastructure. It is right that we look at the supply chains. Covid has proved that we can deliver local. We should work with that, not allow the system to fall apart as we waste months and months down the line. If we allow that to happen, when we turn around to our local communities and authorities and ask them to supply the schools from local producers, those networks will have broken down. We have heard brilliant examples of local authorities doing that—yes, they were pushed into doing it by great advocates, which is often needed—but the Government needs to be a great advocate for that approach.
We need to turn the spending that we are sending all over the world to support our local communities. We need to cut that mileage to reduce the carbon footprint.
It is to the Government’s credit that, after years of Scottish Labour—and others—campaigning for the United Nations right for food to be enshrined in Scottish law, and initially rejecting that as “not necessary”, that will happen. However, we need that sooner rather than later. Covid has shown the reality of food insecurity, with food bank usage already surging before lockdown. We have malnutrition in 2021. Malnutrition and hunger should not exist in 21st century Scotland. Enshrining a statutory right to food in Scottish law is the start of one aspect of eradicating food poverty.
With regard to the two amendments—I will be very quick on this aspect—I accept some of what is included in Rachael Hamilton’s amendment, particularly the point that Scottish independence would irrevocably damage the food and drink industry. However, the Conservatives must equally accept and recognise the damage that Brexit has done to the food and drink sector, its contribution to labour shortages and the damage to the access to markets. Not to do so and encompass that is naive.
Obviously, I support the Labour amendment, because who in this chamber—
I will be very quick, Presiding Officer.
Who in this chamber cannot condemn the unacceptable level of food poverty? Who cannot see the moral wrong in an ever-rising use of food banks in Scotland? Our country produces fresh quality food and it is plentiful.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. You will be pleased to hear that I will speak for considerably less than six minutes.
Two years ago, I led a piece of research where we engaged with more than 1,000 business leaders in 74 countries. They saw Scotland as a country that produces quality products and a place where ethics rank high among our key attributes as a trading nation. No sector better meets those perceptions than the food and drink sector. Fewer sectors contribute as much to Scotland’s global brand. Access to good affordable food is critical for the health of our nation. We know that poor diet leads to poor health outcomes and, as has been commented, to poor learning for our children.
The sector has strategic significance, and we are all indebted to our farmers and producers for the work that they do to secure supplies. However, they face unprecedented challenges.
Over the past 24 hours, I have heard of local consumers in my constituency facing nearly empty shelves that were once stacked with food. My constituency staff have been discussing problems with entrepreneurs who hope to open both a restaurant and a food shop. They face huge rising costs of the basic materials that are needed to refurbish the premises due to issues with supply chains. One existing business in the drinks sector has told me of problems with supplies from Spain; until recently, it had received urgent supplies in 48 to 72 hours but now it faces an eight to 10 weeks’ wait. Others have faced problems with increased bureaucracy, and all that comes on top of the biggest difficulty of all—the recruitment of staff.
Such challenges are not unique to Falkirk East. UK-wide, as many as 500,000 jobs may need to be filled throughout the whole food supply chain. James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, recently stated:
“The current evidence can’t be dismissed. Staff shortages are everywhere in the food supply chain, from farm to manufacturer to haulier.
And if you think gaps on supermarket shelves are worrying, remember care homes & hospitals need food too”.
A recent survey by the federation pointed out that 93 per cent of food and drink companies have vacancies that they are struggling to fill.
Good, skilled people lie at the heart of our food and drink sector. The current problem of employers being blocked from recruiting staff from elsewhere in Europe is caused in part by ideological dogma. I agree that we need to do more to increase the attraction of employment in food and drink and to provide skills for the future, but, at least in the short and medium terms, we need to open the gates to recruitment from our European neighbours.
I would certainly agree that the pandemic has had an influence on skills leaving. However, in terms of skills coming back, the so-called hostile environment—which applies not just to areas outwith the EU—is being strictly enforced on those friends and neighbours who used to come here from the EU. It has had a real impact on them feeling welcome to return, and that is what I bemoan.
Much of the labour market problem is due to the insanity of a Tory Brexit compounding problems on top of the pandemic. The deniers—I think that we have just heard from one—who are easily found among the Tory group should listen to the views—[
.] No, I will not take another intervention. They should listen to the views of James Withers:
“Brexit has created a world where too often problems are denied, warnings ignored & evidence is dismissed”.
“Brexit has been an enormous shock to the labour market; a Brexit implemented in the middle of a pandemic, when supply chains were already straining.”
What are we to do? What kind of future—apart, of course, from an independent Scotland—are we looking for? I am inclined to support the view of Wendy Barrie of the Scottish Food Guide, who recently wrote to me:
“What we need in Scotland is to focus on quality: honest good food, sustainably produced on smaller units. Smaller scale, multiplied up, is more resilient for Scotland’s future and better for the environment”.
I am not saying this to imply that we should turn away from importing and exporting, an idea eloquently outlined by my colleague Jim Fairlie. Instead, we should ensure a healthier home market, where our commitment to quality and resilience serves our needs better. There is much to consider, but working with the sector will allow us to set down strong roots once more for our future growth.
We need to develop strategies that better prepare us for future shocks and global challenges.
The food and drink sector is incredibly important to Scotland, as we have heard today. We in the Scottish Labour Party have been calling for the Scottish Government to bring forward a good food nation bill that is worthy of the sector’s importance for years. Sadly, it has continued to delay. Seven years has passed since the publication of the national food and drink policy, and we are still waiting for a good food nation bill.
The Government pleads the pandemic, but Covid-19 has, if anything, underlined the urgent necessity of such legislation, rather than pointed to the need for delay.
I echo Colin Smyth’s thanks to food and drink workers. Many of those working in the industry were on the front line during the pandemic, working in shops, delivering food, providing assistance and, indeed, growing food. However, many of those workers depended on food banks for their nourishment. Many workers in the hospitality industry found themselves sidelined when they were furloughed, while many others did not even get that, because of the seasonal nature of their jobs. Others sought and found alternative employment, which has left a huge staff shortage throughout the industry.
Through all those issues, the pandemic has caused a huge increase in the dependence on food banks. It is horrendous that the Trussell Trust provided 221,554 emergency food parcels. Martin Whitfield reminded us of a time, not that long ago, when food banks were not required. We should all aspire to having as a core principle in our food and drink strategy the aim of ending the need for food banks—everybody should be able to access good nutritional food.
The Scottish Government has dithered over legislating for a right to food. The right to food should be at the centre of the Government’s good food nation bill, but we hear today that that is not going to happen. I will introduce a member’s bill that would enshrine in Scottish law the right to food and create a commission to drive that right into a reality. Work on that was started by my colleague Elaine Smith, and I have pledged to continue it until the right exists in Scottish law.
In Scotland, we are privileged to have the best food and drink in the world, from Scottish whisky to Scottish salmon, and from Tunnock’s teacakes to Stornoway black pudding—the list goes on. Every member took the opportunity to name check the good food in their constituencies. I cannot do so, because there are far too many examples in my area, although Jenni Minto managed to get in most of the ones in Argyll and Bute. She led the charge on that, closely followed by Finlay Carson for his constituency.
It was lovely to hear all that, but it highlighted the obscenity of people going hungry and malnourished in a country with such bounty. Some members rightly took time to pay tribute to those who work in food banks to provide free food, but they should not have to do that. Martin Whitfield passionately addressed that issue and pointed out how dehumanising it can be to depend on charity for such a basic human right.
Colin Smyth talked about enshrining the right to food in Scottish law. He said that that is vital to all our people, and that we need an independent authority to make it happen. It is important that such an authority is part of any bill to ensure that the policy is driven forward. We know that lack of food and poor nutrition have a huge effect on physical and psychological wellbeing, so it is important that we make sure that food is available to everybody, not through charities but in their own right.
On the Conservative amendment, Alex Rowley and Martin Whitfield made the point that the issue is not what is in the amendment; we disagree with what the amendment would take out of the Government motion. The Conservatives’ points would have been made more strongly if they had recognised some of the UK Conservative Government’s shortcomings in respect of our food and drink policy.
Colin Smyth talked about local procurement, which should be a fundamental part of any food and drink strategy. The Government should not just hand down the strategy; it should work locally to enable small producers to become involved in procurement for our hospitals and schools. Elena Whitham made the same points in her speech, and Finlay Carson talked about meals that are produced in Wales being served in Scottish schools and hospitals, which surely is not right for the environment or for our local businesses.
One of the main concerns that have been raised in the debate has been about the lack of a policy—Willie Rennie, Finlay Carson and others made that point. We are asking farmers and crofters to reach net zero, but we do not have a clue how to help them to achieve that, which is simply not right. If the farming and crofting community do not achieve it, that will not be their fault; it will be the Government’s fault.
The lack of an overall food policy causes many issues. It causes a lack of skills and climate change goals to be missed and it fundamentally affects people’s access to food. That omission will cost us dearly with the health impact of a poor diet. Those who live in our poorer areas lose 20 years of their lives and are more likely to die of Covid. Creating a right to food must be seen as a national emergency. That is my final comment.
Thank you. Before I ask Jamie Halcro Johnston to wind up for the Conservative Party, I am not going to name and shame them but I will note that a couple of members who participated in the debate were late for the closing speeches. When I say to members that they have to be back in the chamber for closing speeches, I mean the start of closing speeches, not some time during them.
With that, I call Jamie Halcro Johnston. You have around seven minutes.
I hope that those members are suitably chastened, Presiding Officer.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests as I am a partner in a farming business and a member of NFU Scotland.
At the beginning of another parliamentary year, the pandemic that we have laboured under for so long still casts a long shadow on our economy. Our most recent economic statistics still show output below what it was before the pandemic. There are problems still to be faced.
There have undoubtedly been positives as we have opened up. Some parts of our domestic tourism trade in some parts of Scotland have seen visitors return in encouraging numbers, and many customer-facing businesses are benefiting from consumer demand. However, many of the businesses concerned suffered considerably during the worst parts of the past year and a half, and our food and drink sector is no different. As we welcome food and drink fortnight this year, it is once again against a negative backdrop. The Government’s motion praises the resilience of producers but we should also recognise just how challenging the period has been and the continuing impact on our economy.
One thing that the pandemic has brought is an unpredictability in demand and supply. Hospitality has suffered some of the greatest challenges. Restaurants, pubs and everything from distillery tours to school lunch halls have been forced to stop, start and stop again at short notice. That disruption has caused challenges for the supply chain, producers, and distributors that should not be underestimated.
As members will know, the food and drink sector has a disproportionately large footprint in my region, the Highlands and Islands, with Orkney beef and cheese, Speyside whisky, Shetland shellfish and brewing on the Black Isle. It is impressive produce and it represents hundreds of employers often making use of local ingredients and sustaining local jobs. It all contributes to more than £11 billion of turnover in the sector.
We must be responsive to the future outlook of those businesses. The enterprise agencies, councils and government more widely should monitor the progress of our recovery at all local levels. As the food and drink partnership recovery plan that was produced under Fergus Ewing noted, growth has often come from entrant businesses that became established in their local markets before expanding outwards.
Many issues with the sector pre-dated the Covid pandemic. My colleague Rachael Hamilton and others said that the continued lack of strategic direction on future Government agricultural policy cannot be raised often enough in Parliament.
Does the member agree with the former chair of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, Tim Smith, who has just said that he is beyond frustrated that the Government has not yet set up a new statutory trade and agricultural commission to scrutinise new trade deals, and that that lack of scrutiny because of such a commission not being set up in the Scottish Parliament will be hugely detrimental to Scottish industry?
“Where is the policy? Where is the road map? All the information you need is sitting waiting on Scottish Government desks to be pulled together. Stop dithering and start delivering.”
I suggest that the member stops distracting and focuses on the issues that his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament can deal with but have not yet done.
That lack of strategic direction represents an unwillingness on the part of ministers to give the sector the clarity and vision that it desperately needs. The cabinet secretary has spoken of sustainable, low-carbon food, but to create that requires a sustainable low-carbon approach to our rural economy. Agricultural businesses have been crying out for direction. They know that change must come and, in many cases, they are optimistic about that change, as Brian Whittle said. The progress from the Scottish Government has been at a snail’s pace. The ferries will probably be finished before we get a direction for Scotland’s farmers.
On that point, the growing ferries crisis, which I raised earlier with the cabinet secretary—an issue on which we have called for the transport minister to make a statement to the chamber—has impacted on rural and island communities across the length of the west coast. Over the course of the summer, some of our island and most remote communities found themselves all but cut off, which had a significant impact not only on residents and potential visitors but on a swathe of businesses, including in the food and drink sector, on islands that rely on their sea connections to export their produce. Those problems may seem distant to SNP ministers here in Edinburgh, but they are a real issue to so many businesses across my region.
We have had a number of good contributions to the debate, and there has probably been more agreement than we might have expected. My colleague Rachael Hamilton raised the concerns of a sector that feels that it is being ignored, with the result that the relationship between farmers and Government has been damaged in the process. Elena Whitham and Colin Smyth highlighted the importance of local food sourcing in procurement. Colin Smyth also highlighted the Government’s failure to introduce the good food nation bill.
Fin Carson spoke about just some of the produce of his constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries and the need for a locally focused approach that would reduce food miles and build on the strength of local suppliers. He also spoke about the missed opportunity that has resulted from the Government’s failure to focus more on the good food nation bill.
For someone who has such a dubious history of livestock-based public relations stunts, Willie Rennie—probably sensibly—played it safe and focused on his passion for broccoli.
Brian Whittle was absolutely right to say that our farmers are among the best in the world—although I might be a bit biased on that—and that Scottish farming is enthusiastic about the opportunities for change. He made the point that farmers need our support. That is also the case for the fishing sector and, in particular, the fish farming sector, which suffers from cheap and often inaccurate headline grabbing by certain people.
Jenni Minto gave us a good, in-depth run around Argyll and Bute and some of the fantastic produce that is available there, and she rightly highlighted the importance of reliable transport links for our food producers.
Some long-established Scottish businesses have gained a global reputation for quality, sustainability and innovation, and in recent years the sector has worked to tackle its impact on climate. In areas such as mine but across Scotland, too, many people have been dependent on the sector—directly or indirectly—for employment. The sector also brings visitors to Scotland, and provides a sense of place and a flavour for our local identities. We are rightly proud of that, and I have no doubt that support for the sector is shared around the chamber.
However, as is the case for businesses across Scotland, support needs to be in place, as well as the conditions for businesses to thrive. The Scottish Government needs to be focused on working to support this vital sector in the present and in the future, instead of being obsessed with making every issue or difficulty that the sector faces yet another constitutional grievance, no matter how untrue that might be.
This is the beginning of a five-year session that will be vital for the sector’s future. It is a chance to improve, to innovate and to develop opportunities; it is a chance to ensure that we get the right support in place for the years ahead; and it is a chance for the Scottish Government to stop talking about what it cannot do and to start talking about what it can do.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I thank all members for their contributions to this important debate. I know that there is a broad consensus that the food and farming industry is key to our economy. It has kept the food on our table during the pandemic, and I want to reiterate Colin Smyth’s thanks to the industry for the work that it has done throughout the pandemic and beyond in making sure that we have had food on our table.
The industry now faces the stark reality of Brexit and the rules, regulations and extra costs that that has brought for the sector. A policy that was supposed to free business from red tape has had entirely the opposite effect.
On that subject, I must address some of the points that have been made during the debate in relation to the amendments. It is a bit rich for the Tories to make claims about the impact of independence on the food and drink industry when we are seeing the fallout from the UK Government’s decisions, which we in Scotland cannot affect. Jamie Halcro Johnston used the term “constitutional grievance”. Which party was it that included mention of independence in its amendment?
It is really important that we look back at what the UK Government has done to the food and drink industry in Scotland. It is a UK Government that took the convergence uplift intended for Scottish farmers and crofters, to the tune of £160 million, for which we had to fight for years to get back. It was only down to the industry and the relentless pursuit of that by my predecessor, Fergus Ewing, that we saw the money eventually return to Scotland.
It is also a UK Government that, despite claiming it would fully replace EU funding, did nothing of the kind—cutting our funding for agriculture to the tune of £170 million. I am glad that Finlay Carson thinks that is an amount to be sniffed at.
It is also a UK Government that, rather than provide the £62 million that would replace the European maritime and fisheries fund allocation to Scotland, provided only £14 million to our coastal communities.
It is also a UK Government that could not be less interested in the disastrous impacts that its policies are having on food producers here.
No—I need to make progress.
On trade deals, I wrote three letters with three requests for urgent calls with the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, to discuss our industry’s fears. To this day, I have not had a response.
The trade and agriculture commission mentioned by Rachael Hamilton is still not established. We have therefore had trade deals that have been rushed through without that body being established to do what it was created to do.
On migration, the FDF highlights an absolutely critical issue in its briefing to members, which has been conveniently cherry picked by the Tories and completely glossed over in their motion. Every single plea by me in my previous role as rural affairs minister and from Ben Macpherson in his role as migration minister and then in rural affairs—
No—I need to make progress, and I think it is really important that Finlay Carson listens to these points.
Jenny Gilruth, in her previous role as Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, made 19 requests for meetings to discuss migration matters. Every single one of them was ignored. It is therefore quite clear which Government is doing irrevocable damage to our food and drink industry.
What we are asking for was aptly summarised by Michelle Thomson. We need to plan for the future when it comes to these issues. We have set up a commission to consider land-based learning, which will look at the skills that we need in the longer term and for the future.
I will not give way at this moment in time.
.]. We need the immediate interventions requested by the industry, because—as it has stated—we are heading into a crisis, and these points need to be addressed immediately.
On the Labour amendment, I could not agree more with a lot of the arguments that were made by Colin Smyth and Martin Whitfield in their passionate speeches. It is completely morally unjustifiable that we are seeing an ever-increasing use of food banks in Scotland. Nobody should be going hungry or having to rely on food banks in our country. We continue to use all the powers at our disposal in Scotland to challenge the root causes of poverty, but it does not help when that is completely undermined by the UK Government through actions such as the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift. We will publish an action plan to outline the steps that we will take to end the need for food banks.
Colin Smyth mentioned the importance of local food strategies and procurement, as did a number of other members. We want to harness the power of public sector procurement, which is why we committed to tackling that and outlined that in our manifesto. We have the food for life programme in our local authorities. Can we embed that approach across the public sector, given its clear benefits for health and our local economies and producers? That point was well made and emphasised by Elena Whitham and Martin Whitfield. Elena outlined the work being done by East Ayrshire Council. I will also come on to address the local food strategy that was mentioned.
As we heard, there are lots of positive stories in the food and drink industry in Scotland about how communities have pulled together to get food to those most in need, about how businesses have innovated to keep going and about the green shoots of recovery that we are starting to see as restrictions are easing in Scotland and in our overseas markets.
I will highlight some of the points from the debate. Willie Rennie mentioned some of the fantastic produce in his constituency. When we follow that supply chain through, I also have to mention Jamie Scott at The Newport Restaurant, who, with his team, always masterfully manages to put that together and showcase the very best of Scottish produce.
During the summer recess, I was absolutely delighted to visit Islay and Colonsay with Jenni Minto. I was able to sample for myself some of the things that she mentioned, to visit Bruichladdich distillery, and to see some incredible hospitality—we saw the best of Scotland being showcased, such as by Emma Clark at Glenegedale House.
Finlay Carson talked about the food in his region, and I am just sorry that the Stranraer oyster festival has not been able to take place. I have visited that with my colleague Emma Harper on a number of occasions.
Elena Whitham spoke about Bryce Cunningham, whom I first met a few years ago and who was one of the Scottish Government’s climate change champions. It has been fantastic to see how his business has developed and is now integrated in the local supply chain.
I could not let today pass without mentioning some of the businesses in my constituency. We have talked about those people who went above and beyond during the crisis last year, when people rediscovered the importance of buying local and supporting our small businesses. One such vital business in my town is my local butcher, whom it is also apt to mention since it is love lamb week. Gavin Brymer and his team went above and beyond during the pandemic to keep people fed, reconstructing their business—pretty much overnight—to ensure that they could keep people fed with their home delivery service.
There have been those who have been working to provide local food to local people, such as What’s For Tea Tonight, near Laurencekirk, and Farm to Table, near Auchenblae, who provide their own fresh produce from the farm, as well as partnering with other local producers, such as the Phoenix Bakehouse in Inverbervie. The Lobster Shop in Johnshaven supplies the freshest and best shellfish.
I must mention The Food Life in Brechin, which has been doing truly amazing work with young people. It received lottery funding to deliver a project that brings together young people in the community to learn about building sustainable local systems while equipping them with food production skills, looking at the growing, processing and distribution of food. We have so much to shout about and truly applaud, not just over the course of this food and drink fortnight, but well beyond it.
The sector is, of course, built on people: more than 122,000 over 17,000 businesses, from microbusinesses through to some of the biggest players on the global stage. There are the entrepreneurs, the farm shops and the people diversifying what they farm to create and supply the growing market for sustainably produced food.
As I have said, the key ingredient of food and drink is undoubtedly the people. We need to thank all those who work in our food and drink industry, from the primary producers to those throughout the supply chain, and really celebrate them all in this food and drink fortnight. They are at the heart of what is helping us to be and what will make us a good food nation. For that reason, we have to continue to support them and the people working with the industry.
Personally, I look forward to being part of the recovery process and will certainly do everything that I can to continue the recovery in order that our food and drink sector flourishes, as it rightly deserves to do.