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It’s a real pleasure to be here – thank you very much inviting me.
I am extremely glad to have the chance to talk to you all and to hear your views as we prepare for the EU exit negotiations.
You’ll have to tell me whether it’s a coincidence that we are here at Battleby today.
This is, after all, where proud Scots faced down expansionist European opponents and saw them off.
So it’s perhaps fitting for us to be here to talk about leaving the EU and securing the best deal for farmers in Scotland.
But I’d like to start by making the point that Scotland’s agriculture is one of the UK’s great success stories.
Even though farming here isn’t for the faint-hearted.
You will know all too well that you are dealing with a harsh climate and unforgiving geography. There is a reason why 85 per cent of land in Scotland is designated as less-favoured.
But collectively you have embraced the challenges – and instead of letting them hold you back, you have used the land to your advantage.
From Orkney Beef to Stornoway Black Pudding to Ayrshire Dunlop Cheese, Scottish farming uses the natural resources available to provide a quality product that could only be created here in Scotland.
On the edges of Orkney’s northernmost isle, North Ronaldsay lambs graze exclusively on seaweed. In the Outer Hebrides, salt is being hand-harvested and packed to create a sustainable and pure product. In Angus, cattle are being bred using genomics to create the perfect beef.
Farming is a success story for Scotland – and one that is vital to the UK economy.
It contributes about £650 million to the UK economy annually. It is the bedrock of the £5 billion Scottish food and drink sector exports. And it directly and indirectly supports the jobs of over 300,000 people.
But while the successes are easier to talk about, I know that farming faces huge challenges. Across the UK, farmers face rising input costs, an ageing workforce and volatile market prices.
That’s why, while agriculture policy below the EU level is the responsibility of the Scottish Government, the UK government is also proud to do everything it can to support farming in Scotland – from a supportive tax regime to backing innovation.
As promised in our manifesto, we are developing a 25-year plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food.
Earlier this year we introduced a system that allows farmers to average their income tax profits from two years to five years, to help with the volatility in prices and weather which we know is an unavoidable factor in farming.
And with our £160m agritech strategy, the launch of the Food Innovation Network earlier this month and the creation of a new Industrial Strategy, we are backing innovative and pioneering practices.
But you have not gathered here today to discuss these issues, important though they are. I recognise that the decision to leave the EU will be front and centre of your considerations today. So let me address this head-on.
The success of the Scottish agriculture sector means that we can approach the coming challenges of leaving the EU from a position of strength.
But I know that this process will still bring challenges to farming communities as they adjust to life outside the EU.
The Common Agricultural Policy has for years channelled funding to farmers across the UK. That is highly valued, and I know any replacement system is one of your main priorities.
And before this replacement comes into existence, swathes of EU regulation will need to be assessed, replicated, improved, or scrapped so that regulation is efficient and effective.
This will take time.
That is why the Chancellor stepped in very quickly to guarantee the same level of agricultural support until 2020 and also to confirm that we will honour, for its lifetime, any agri-environment scheme signed before our departure from the EU.
This vital interim measure provides crucial certainty and continuity to our rural communities while we develop a new approach to supporting agriculture and protecting our precious countryside.
We will continue to make sure that farmers across the UK have the support they need to keep doing the job that they do best – providing food for our tables and stewardship of our environment.
But I also want to focus not just on the challenges ahead but on the prize.
We can continue to provide support for farmers, but we can do it so much better.
Because for too long, Common Agricultural Policy bureaucracy has been an unnecessary burden piled on farmers in Scotland and across the UK. One that has almost buried the purpose of the policy itself.
Now, for the first time, there is the chance to design, from scratch, a system that works for farmers.
Not a system that simultaneously tries to support farmers rearing cattle in Scotland, growing olives in Greece or harvesting wheat in Poland. Not a system that has to balance the competing demands of 28 member states with vastly different climates and lands. Not a system built on regulation for regulation’s sake.
But a system designed for Scotland and for all of the UK.
Leaving the EU brings immense opportunities but it is far too early to say what the eventual support landscape will look like.
However I will make four brief observations.
First, market access will be crucial. And that includes maintaining the integrity of the UK domestic market.
Second, any replacement will need to be targeted and flexible.
Third, it will need to be simpler – not a replica of the CAP’s complex bureaucracy. But it will need to maintain accountability, safety, and standards.
And fourth, there is a choice about exactly how we will make that framework work across the UK. The UK government is making no assumptions. There has to be a broad discussion, in which your organisation will have an important voice.
Your emerging requirements and priorities – from advice to support for new entrants – will all be discussed in detail with my colleagues in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish Government. Again, I assure you, we are making no presumptions on what the result will look like.
And I want to be clear that as we progress we will work closely and constructively with the Scottish government and other devolved administrations in the coming months and years.
There is much work to be done.
But the point is we will have freedom. Freedom to keep what works, improve what could work better, and do away with what doesn’t.
I hope you understand that I can’t provide a running commentary on negotiations – that isn’t how we’ll win the best deal.
But I do have a plea for you today.
You have already published your emerging views, and that is fantastic. I and my ministerial colleagues have also met with many of you to hear your views first hand.
But you need to continue to make the case for the farming community – and you need to make it loudly.
You need to tell us what you want and what you don’t want. And you need to tell the public. Because if you don’t, others will do it for you and this may not be in your best interests.
If we get it right, farming will emerge into the next decade as a sector full of opportunity, many of which will be new opportunities abroad.
And yes, that does mean access to EU markets.
This will be the first topic discussed when the Scottish Government meet with the UK and other devolved administrations at the inaugural meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations.
That reflects the importance of market access across the economy and across the UK – I know it is paramount to farmers and so does the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
But it’s not just about EU market access. It’s also about global opportunities for British food, whose brand is known and respected around the world.
In January this year we established the Great British Food Unit that is helping to trademark and promote British foods around the world.
This is part of much wider work of the Great British Food Campaign to make sure that “brand UK” is known and respected around the world as a sign of quality.
Last week the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom was in Paris to launch a five-year international action plan to boost UK food and drink exports.
This will provide business support, mentoring and training to target export growth in 18 countries around the world, including market access for beef and poultry to Japan, lamb and beef to the USA, and pork to China.
We want to see a truly global farming sector that can take full advantage of trade opportunities, and we want to establish British food as a quality international brand.
Scottish farming is already leading the way here.
Just ask Highland Wagyu who are aiming to become the biggest producer of Wagyu cattle in Europe
Or Mackie’s who have sold their ice cream as far afield as South Korea
Or Ogilvie Potato Vodka who are growing, harvesting, brewing and distilling potatoes for the international vodka market.
There is no doubt we have a worldwide reputation for quality.
But we need to maintain this, and at the same time make sure that UK farming continues to be competitive, productive and innovative.
Historically, Scotland and the rest of the UK have led the way in pioneering farming practices – from crop rotations to raised strawberry beds to genomics.
And we still do. Just look at the world leading research coming out of places like the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute.
As we leave the EU, now is the time to step this effort up and to make sure that the UK remains at the forefront of innovation.
But for the sector to be competitive and innovative it must also be resilient. So we need to work with you to ensure the industry is well prepared and able to withstand market price volatility and extreme events.
From flooding to disease outbreak, our systems need to be robust and ready to support you. And your own operations need to be ready to withstand whatever nature or the markets throw our way.
Equally, we will need to support farming if we are to maintain a level of food security for the UK.
It is also vital that the industry is sustainable. Farming has always been the backbone of rural communities, especially in some of Scotland’s most remote communities – and this is something we all cherish.
It is also true that, often without reward, farmers help protect the environment.
This role needs to be preserved and best practice needs to be celebrated – because ultimately you cannot have a strong, sustainable farming community without a healthy environment.
Lastly – farming will be, as it is today, a sector that is trusted.
This is paramount to a strong industry. Farming here prides itself on its high standards – and rightly so. This needs to be maintained and strengthened, so that consumers have full confidence in our food system.
And we should always look to be proud of our world leading standards of animal welfare.
So…a sector that is global, productive, resilient, sustainable and trusted.
That is the vision the UK government has for farming across the country.
And as we go into EU exit negotiations, that is the vision we will keep in front of us.
So that is our starting position. And with that in mind, I want to leave you with two questions.
Because, once you take away all the noise, they are the only two questions that I think really matter.
First - where do you want your industry to be in 20 years’ time?
And second – what is the journey to get there?
Small questions for a Friday afternoon…
It is certainly a time of significant change - regardless of whether you voted to leave the EU or not.
But amid the change there are real opportunities.
Now is the time to seize the agenda and make your voice heard.
I look forward to working with you all over the coming months and years to make sure we get you the best deal possible.
And I look forward to Scottish farming emerging the stronger for it.
Thank you very much.