Scotland really could be a land of milk and honey

Here’s a fact.  Three-quarters of Scotland’s land mass is under agricultural production of some sort.

Here’s another.  One in ten of all Scottish jobs are connected to the agricultural industry.  And we only ever hear about them – really – when some are at risk.

Thus, meat-processing has become front page news, with the threat to 1700 jobs at Halls and a further 150 at the old McKellar Watt factories.  Apparently, they are not modern enough and Scotland no longer produces enough pigs to satisfy demand, which is ironic really, given that our appetite for processed meat products appears insatiable.

At the same time, one of Scotland’s undoubted farming success stories – dairy – is having its viability threatened again.  Dairy farming is still a vital component in the rural economy of Scotland.   Those who do it  – two milkings a day, 365 days a year  – have never been averse to modernisation:  if you ever have the chance to go and watch a milking, do it.   You’ll be astonished at what a professional, efficient and highly mechanised process it is.  Our dairy farmers have also seized the opportunity to innovate: much of what Scotland now produces is organic fare, which is much better for our environment.

We think so little about the journey from field to plate that many of us appear to have forgotten that one of the staples which we rely heavily on at every mealtime, starts its life in a cow.  And that the people who produce the core ingredient need to be paid enough to survive: more, much more, than the gate price which the processors have colluded in reducing from August.  Farmers will now be paid less than it costs to produce a litre of milk, yet the retail price of milk will stay the same.  Someone is making money but it isn’t the farmers.

The journey from cow to fridge and cheese counter is a complex one.  Here’s another thing we can probably safely blame Thatcher for, for it was she who de-regulated the milk industry.

Indeed, the current batch of Tory toffs who bedevil us in Scotland seem curiously unsympathetic to the farmers’ plight, given this is where they traditionally secure their vote.  The former Galloway MP, Peter Duncan, suggested on Twitter that a news piece on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme had missed crucial detail stating that “farm gate price of milk is up 60% on 2005 figure” and that the real reason farmgate prices were low was because of a weak euro, cheap imports and “farmers poor at working together”.  He airily signed off these tweets with a supply and demand hashtag, implying that farmers should just have to put up with the realities and vagaries of capitalism.

Meanwhile, our Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead, has sided with the farmers but said essentially milk prices are a UK issue.  He would, though, legislate if need be.

And here we get to the nub of the issue.  It is all very well our government riding to the rescue – at least, unlike the Tories, they are prepared to do so – when shit happens.  But what role does agriculture and food production play in our long-term thinking.  When Ministers get the chance to ponder what kind of Scotland should we, can we be, how often does building on our fundamental assets and resources feature? We are after all, stuck with the land we have, much of it prime for agriculture, lots of it fit only for agriculture.

At the time of the foot and mouth crisis, one fact to emerge was how un-self-sustaining our food industry was.  Scotland might be a key producer of core product, but much of it gets sent hither and thon around the UK and beyond for essential processing before ending back up on our supermarket shelves.  What has changed since then?  Not a lot.

Yet, in times of global instability and uncertainty, we could be relatively food secure if we had the industry in place in the form of abattoirs, creameries, processing and production units.  Unlike many, I buy food products which I know support local industry, partly from economic patriotism and partly due to environmental concerns.  I buy Scottish as and when I can but I’m not nearly as worthy as the Fife food diet which champions the consumption of food produced locally and rejects expensive imports.

We could all do more and an interventionist approach could make that happen.  Scotland needs a food strategy which invests in its own products and in reducing journey time and cost from producer to consumer.  Such a strategy needs to provide grants and loans for innovation and capital investment to modernise key parts of the process.  This would have the added value of creating jobs – not just direct ones, but indirect ones in the technological advances required to put us at the cutting-edge of processing.  It would create new skills and manufacturing opportunities along the way.

It would also provide economic security for the very fragile rural communities in Scotland:  recent research by the Scottish Agricultural College suggested that small rural towns were at risk of going bust in the current recession.  The analysis might be a little too bald – these towns will hirple along whatever happens in the bigger economic picture, but they do so, from a very low base.

And such a strategy must tackle the excessive profiteers.  Large retailers of alcohol and tobacco products already have to pay a public health levy in the form of higher business rates.  A similar approach could see incentives built into rates for those which promote local food at reasonable prices, thereby encouraging better prices and more shelf space to home-grown produce.  Take it further and offer rates holidays for small, independent purveyors in town centres – of fish, meat, dairy products and fruit and vegetables.  Oh, and provide investment and incentives for niche industries like honey, herbs, nuts and wild fish stocks for producers, wholesalers and retailers.

Making healthy, raw foodstuffs more affordable would help address our unhealthy living practices too.  Yes, there are legitimate health concerns about a diet high in red meat and dairy produce but such an approach would surely make fruit and vegetables, and fish more affordable for many.  And if we can legislate to improve or at least, limit the unsustainable driving down of gate prices, then we must.  We must use all the tools at our disposal to protect core industries.

Because dairy farmers and factory workers alike need to earn a living wage.  And we need a sustainable economy which plays to our strengths and tackles our deficits.



20 thoughts on “Scotland really could be a land of milk and honey

  1. Pingback: Scotland really could be a land of milk and honey | Scottish Business |

  2. This might sound really cruel. But i dont really care if Farmers arent making money when they sell milk. I dont care, at all, how much a farmer gets per pint of milk. ALl i care about is what I have to pay for a pint.

    If they are getting paid less than what it costs to produce, then thats cos they are willing to take less than it costs. They dont, at least not year after year, sell milk are below cost price. If they cant make a profit selling milk….then they should sell something else. #supplyanddemand.

    • This might sound really cruel. But i dont really care if Farmers arent making money when they sell milk. I dont care, at all, how much a farmer gets per pint of milk. ALl i care about is what I have to pay for a pint.

      If you think that UHT milk from France will be cheap forget it as that is all that you will have left in the milk market in the UK if the supermarkets carry on with their present policy of strangling the dairy industry.

    • And you’re missing the point completely. The price we pay for milk will not go down nor even hold. Indeed, it’s gone up in the last year. So if farmers getting paid less for their product and we are paying more for it, who is making the money here?

  3. If only it was as simple as all the above makes out. We face several crises at once. Climate change, demographic catastrophe, land tenure failures, market failures (milk), CAP reform, unrepresentative institutions (Crown Estate NFUS SLBA) and a mostly powerless government. Sorry to sound so grim, but we face a Potemkin village countryside today. It cannot deliver what Scotland needs without fundamental reform.

  4. Food is a bit like oil – there are key choke-points that are held by virtual monopolies. Milk processing, slaughtering and much of the processing – then there’s the retailers.

    I think the strategy you suggest is pretty much the one we have although you can throw in a bit of diversification as well. Unfortunately the market isn’t structured towards such objectives.

    Freshlink need to replace their refrigeration plant to make it CFC compliant and the Company has excess production capacity. I don’t see much future for it, I’m afraid.

    I suspect that Halls are squeezed between high feed prices and needing the supermarket contracts to take what is a very high volume production. One major concern is the dominance that Halls have in slaughtering capacity – an area that has seen major change due to regulation.

    I did a survey of an abattoir once. Top tip – take a deep breath before entering the offal room. It put me off Scotch Pies for a couple of years but I’m over it now.

    Whatever happens, if the food retailers continue to march back up the food chain then the farmers are in seriously big trouble.

  5. Pingback: Scotland really could be a land of milk and honey | Referendum 2014 |

  6. Good post, but I wish you would stop promoting the con-game that is “organic”. I’m not discussing organic crops and vegetables, not my subject, but organic livestock farming is in no way “better for the environment”. It’s especially not better for the animals, because of the pressures to avoid using proper medications for prevention and treatment of illness.

    Any good farmer will try to minimise medication use, it’s simply good practice. We’ve come a long way in conventional farming from the blind instructions to worm your sheep on A, B, C and D dates in the year. Sustainable control of parasites in sheep (google it) is not an organic innovation. All veterinary medicines are tested for safety as well as efficacy, and come with properly-researched withdrawal times to ensure the absence of residues in the food chain. Any farmer who breaches these times is in trouble. Organic production offers no advantage to the consumer in this respect.

    Thankfully, “organic” isn’t a huge proportion of Scotland’s produce. Organic producers can be very dishonest though, implying that everything which isn’t part of their Luddite little club is Stalag Cow. Of course it’s not. The sheep and beef cattle you see roaming the hillsides freely are probably not “organic”. They have happy lives, and all the happier for receiving 21st century medical care.

    When the Soil Association stops this ludicrous demonisation of vital veterinary medicines and its even more ludicrous promotion of homoeopathy (if you’re going to deny an animal medical care through dogmatism, then admit what you’re doing honestly, don’t pretend sugar pills are medicine), and stops discouraging vaccination, then it might be a positive force. But hey – it would have nothing to distinguish it from conventional farming if it did that.

    • The point you are missing regarding organics is that they recycle the minerals needed for healthy plant growth back into the soil to be used again whereas intensive/monoculture agriculture is more inclined for these essential minerals to be lost forever through leaching etc and the one thing in this world that does not increase is fertile agricultural land.

      • The point you are missing is that as far as actual practice goes, there is no significant difference between conventional livestock farming in Scotland, and those who have gone for the “organic” certification, other than depriving the “organic” animals of medical treatment.

        Livestock farming in Scotland bears absolutely no relation to the bogeymen invented by the “organic” lobby to part you from your money.

      • Money is a man made construction which has no tangible value unless you have learnt how to digest cellulose and printers ink. At the moment intensive monoculture farming/food industry uses 7-10 calaories of fossil fuel to supply 1 calorie of food unsustainable for much longer.

      • That would only be a relevant reply if conventional livestock farming in Scotland was an intensive monoculture. It’s not. “Organic” is just the same, but minus the medical care.

    • Animal welfare always comes first in organic systems and it’s plain wrong to argue otherwise. Organic farms do not ban the use of antibiotics they just ensure they are only used to treat illness. If antibiotic resistance issues are being treated seriously now by conventional agri-business then don’t attack those who realised this decades ago. It’s common sense to prevent illness from occurring through reduced stocking densities and better housing for example and while this isn’t unique to organic systems, the certification does represent the gold standard of welfare practice. Not all Scottish Beef even makes it outside the shed. Farms are whole systems and I’m just as interested in what is sprayed on fields used for forage and grazing as well as how the livestock sits in rotation with arable production in the lowlands and how wildlife is protected on farm as well as the integrity of a product reared for quality rather than volume. You should meet some organic livestock producers, many have come from the conventional side but wanted to be valued for their farm ethos while taking standards up a notch.

      • I’m afraid you have been reading the propaganda, rather than observing what actually happens out there. I’ve met many many farmers of both sorts, and I have to say that concern for animal welfare isn’t significantly different between the two groups on average. Nevertheless the luddite dogmatism of the “organic” rules militates against the welfare of these animals, as the farmers know they stand to lose a premium if they use the forbidden medicines.

        In general, I am more comfortable with the “organic” farmers who treat it as a business and generally find the ways to use proper prophylactic and therapeutic treatments within the rules, than the swivel-eyed “ban all chemicals” brigade. These people have simply seen a marketing opportunity, which is what “organic” is. In actual fact there’s no difference between them and the conventional farmers except that you’ll pay more for their produce.

        The other group are often people who weren’t doing very well anyway, and weren’t actually spending much on medicines in the first place, or people who have actually bought into the “chemicals are poison” propaganda. There’s nothing more sickening than seeing young animals in the prime of life dying painfully of preventable conditions, because the “organic” dogma refused to allow preventative treatment. Maybe you should actually see some of the bodies. I don’t think these animals thought much about “farm ethos” while they were dying of common, treatable illnesses.

        “Organic” may be many things, including a vehicle for the promotion of homoeopathy, but the “gold standard” of animal welfare it most certainly is not.

      • You make strong allegations here. If they are not a wild by-product of your prejudices then you should name individual farms- they would lose organic certification as a result and would also be breaking the law.
        Alternatively we can believe those who have an overriding concern about animal welfare – like Compassion In World Farming and accept their endorsement of organic farming.

      • i know many dairy organic farmers who converted and who have never looked back. They absolutely do it by the book and are glad to have done so.

      • Of course I’m not going to name farms. It would be a breach of confidentiality for me to do so. And of course they wouldn’t lose their organic certification. It’s absolutely built into the system that some animals have to get sick and suffer and die so the farm can demonstrate that it actually needs to use medicines.

        Compassion in World Farming are in many ways a bunch of naive idealists. You tell me how any set of standards that mandates the use of magic sugar pills instead of tested effective medicines can be “compassionate”?

        Considering the premium on “organic” produce, I imagine many of the farms who have gone that route are quite content. That doesn’t mean their animals are any better off, or their produce any better.

  7. OK the horse has long gone,in the 1960,s the Dutch were paying their farmers to produce cheap bacon ,ham and other porc produce,and here nothing was done to boost pig farming here it was discouraged,by many different bouts of legislation.Our imports of cheap bacon (primarily) cost Scotland and Ireland dear.It did not stop there every time somebody wrote abot it they were shut up by not getting their letters printed (me I wrote plenty)We export most of our really high quality food stuffs,and import old milk cows to mince up.We do need to look after our own like they do on the continent,our farmers are punished for being good.That is why other governments had subsidies in place for their farmers.Our fish farms suffer more from our own legislation than any other country does.I best stop I feel blood pressure rising.

  8. Interesting post Kate. I’m sure Peter Duncan would welcome investment in supply chain efficiencies but for him that probably means mega-dairies and ever growing consolidation of family dairy farms.
    Public procurement could and should have a strong role to play here and was a feature of the Organic Targets Bill proposal back in the first session of the Scottish Parliament. Unfortunately cash strapped councils feel ham-strung by EU competition rules but the Soil Association Food for Life mark project shows what can be done using permitted criteria around ‘freshness’ to get local produce into school meals for example.
    We need to play to our strengths in Scotland and make sure that where we do have good export products that these are also feeding into local food economies. One of the saddest examples I have seen was during a visit to an amazing shellfish processor on Barra producing incredible delicacies for Spanish tapas bars. Next door we lunched at the local primary school where they were tucking into pre-packed frozen scampi from England.

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