Radical agricultural reform in Scotland. How the coalition government can use its powers

Photo – Ian Dick Flickr

In this guest post for Brexit Spotlight, Another Europe’s Seema Syeda considers the steps Scotland could take to bring about much needed transformative change in how we farm.  

Agricultural policy is devolved under the UK constitution and the Scottish Parliament has the power to set and implement its own agricultural strategy, divergent from that of Westminster’s de facto English policy. The SNP have already stated their intention to keep the Scottish agriculture sector aligned with EU regulatory and policy developments, with a view to easing the process of rejoining the bloc in the event of Scottish independence or otherwise. 

To this end, the SNP has committed to mirroring the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to reduce carbon emissions, switch to more organic farming methods, and discourage deforestation, as part of the EU’s stated aim to become carbon-neutral by 2050. 

Now the UK is outside of the Common Agricultural Policy, the SNP has pledged to continue direct subsidies to support farming unconditionally until 2025, by which point half of that funding will become conditional upon targeted outcomes for ‘biodiversity gain’ and ‘low carbon approaches which improve resilience, efficiency and profitability.’ This is actually quite similar to the English/Westminster government’s approach. Their Agricultural Transition Plan will also see unconditional payments phased out in favour of grants for biodiversity and climate goals. 

In principle, this should be a positive development. Very few erstwhile supporters of staying in the EU ever defended the Common Agricultural Policy, which saw cash systematically given to some of Britain’s wealthiest landowners. But the devil is in the detail and implementation. And while grants for conservation is a positive step, there is also much more that could be done. 

So, what could Scotland, where the Greens and the SNP now govern in coalition, do with its powers? Apart from in the sphere of immigration (a key issue in farming, where the use of the Agricultural Workers Visa often leads to super-exploitation) the answer is “a lot”. 

Here are some ideas which go above and beyond the EU’s still insufficient framework. Taken together, they could pioneer radical agricultural reform, setting an example for countries all over the continent.

Land Reform
80% of Scottish land is classed as agricultural. As evidenced in this report from the Scottish think-tank Common Weal, despite two recent batches of land reform legislation, the number of Scottish landowners is almost as small today as it was in 1872. Scotland has one of the most concentrated patterns of land ownership in the whole of Europe, and despite attempts at land reform, Scottish land ownership has become more concentrated over the last few decades. 57% of Scottish land, excluding urban areas, is privately owned, with only 432 people owning 50% of that land – that’s 0.008% of the population. 750,000 acres of land in Scotland is owned in tax havens.

These land monopolies have led to soaring rents for tenant farmers (the numbers of whom are in decline), difficulties purchasing or building residential properties for farmers and agricultural workers, deforestation and environmental degradation. Where landowners do improve the land, e.g. through tree-planting, this is funded by the public via subsidies. The improvements lead to further price rises but the gains accrue to private monopoly landholders, not the ordinary citizens who facilitated the improvements. This appropriation by private individuals of value created by the collective is unjust and must be tackled.

The Scottish Government has legislated for a series of reforms, theoretically giving communities first preference for purchasing land for sale, as well as enabling legislation for a scheme to tie rents to land productivity rather than market prices. But the latter policy has not yet been implemented and looks to be floundering at the consultation stage. Only 3% of Scottish land is now community owned, as there are significant financial and regulatory barriers to ‘community’ purchasing.

Given that agriculture is a devolved competency, the SNP-Green coalition has the power to take bolder action on land reform. At the very least, the Scottish government should make sustainability and conservation measures mandatory on all agricultural land, ending subsidies to monopoly landowners who should pay for such measures out of their own pockets, and increasing subsidies to cooperatively owned farms, encouraging smaller, sustainable, more local businesses to enter the market and stay afloat. Monopoly landowners who fail to meet the minimum environmental standards should be subject to compulsory purchase orders.

More political will should be placed on overcoming the landed interests blocking the move to tie rents to land productivity. The enabling legislation already exists, so strengthening tenant farmers’ unions and building pressure from below could help to achieve the implementation of the policy.

Land taxation proportionate to the value of the land, as well as substantial inheritance tax, would help tackle the problem of the high concentration of land ownership and would also redistribute the benefits gained from privately owned land, discouraging the use of land for rent-seeking. 

Even more radical would be to introduce a cap on land holdings. This has been implemented in other European social democracies and Common Weal have put forward a detailed policy proposal as to how this can be practically achieved through Compulsory Purchase Orders. CPOs are not new and have frequently been used by governments to purchase land and put it to uses more conducive to the public good. Movements towards land reform are already backed by the SNP’s coalition partners. It is now only a question of political will.

Working conditions
While immigration policy is a competency reserved for the UK government, agricultural subsidies can also be used as a tool to mitigate the exploitation wrought by the Conservatives’ hostile environment and ending of free movement. As per the Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commitment, agricultural employers found in breach of minimum standards for working and living conditions should be penalised with the removal of subsidies.  

But more should be done. Current pay and working conditions are dire, particularly for seasonal workers, most of whom pay a fee to be accommodated in caravans on-site on farmland. Modern-day slavery is a problem, especially with seasonal agricultural work. The Scottish government could encourage the building of more permanent housing, with access to cheap, suitable transport methods for seasonal workers, subsidising the costs for smaller farmers. 

Subsidies (and the threat of removing them) could also be used to incentivise farmers to pay all workers a living wage set above the minimum wage rate. Funding should be channelled towards accessible migrant support services providing interpretation, advice and free access to legal representation. 

Encourage biodiversity and renewable energy generation on agricultural land
Instead of following the EU’s 2050 target for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, the Scottish government should commit to a 2030 target, given the pace of environmental degradation and Scotland’s legislative autonomy.

The agricultural sector is key to the transition towards renewable energy and net-zero. Alongside a rapid programme of creating new woodlands and rewilding, public, community and cooperatively owned land should qualify to receive large subsidies to promote the development of renewable energy generation, such as wind and solar power, across the land. As Common Weal have suggested, anaerobic digestion plants can help manage waste from agriculture, solar farms can be combined with grazing land for sheep, and offshore wind farms can be constructed on foundations that will become new artificial reefs with room for wave energy machines in coastal areas.

All these actions are within the remit of the Scottish Parliament. The Green-SNP coalition that has talked the talk on radical land, agriculture and climate reforms. Now it’s time to walk the walk.