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.