Royal Highland Show: Oxford Farming Conference 2018

“This house believes in paying farmers for more than food.”

This is the motion that we, the panel, were presented with – to argue for or against – in the Oxford Farming Conference‘s debate at the 2018 Royal Highland Show on the 21st of June. Below is a transcript of the speech I gave.

God ettermiddag damer og herrer.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

Please excuse the Norwegian, but last month I had opportunity to visit Norway – to see some of their land management practices – I was immediately attracted by the idea of Landbruk.

Nominally “Agriculture” – but encompassing farming, forestry, fisheries, hunting, and everything in between.

The main goals of Landbruk are to meet society’s needs:

  • It must produce safe and healthy food of high quality in light of consumer preferences
  • And produce public goods such as securing long-term food production and a broad range of environmental and cultural benefits

Do we have anything in Scotland equivalent to the Norwegian Landbruk?


Well, we have the Scottish Land Use Strategy

It covers the three pillars of sustainable development – social, economic, environmental, and has experimented with the idea of local decision making.

So I’ll ask, how many of you are aware of the SLUS? And its key themes?

Perhaps any strategy we adopt going forward should have a similar key view to Norway, that is, to feed the nation.

The motion of this house is that “…farmers should be paid for more than food”

I would like to suggest we pay farmers TO grow food

Not “we should carry on the current system + payments for nature”

Not “remove subsidy altogether”

But that we should pay farmers for growing food and managing the land to deliver public goods as one and the same thing.


So why do we find ourselves where we are right now?

For perfectly laudable reasons. We all know CAP came about after the war – with good intentions of achieving food security in EU

But how do you design a system which effectively supports farmers from the Arctic Circle to the Southern Mediterranean?

Speaking nationally, has it been a success? In the UK we still import over half of our food, including staples.

We are familiar with the narrative of wine lakes and butter mountains of the 70’s, but the EU still dumps $20 billion of subsidised food on Africa each year.

Meanwhile, for example, we imported £196.5million roses from Kenya, from a water-poor country, for Valentine’s day.

Hindering developing nations agricultural development and slapping them with tariffs if they endeavour to add value to primary products, so we can have cheap food and throwaway flowers.

Back in the UK we’re losing an estimated 3 million tonnes of topsoil a year and have estimated 100 harvests left using our current systems.

All this with a growing call from the public for land use to become ever more accountable.

On that note – What should, or could a post-Brexit Scottish Land Use Strategy look like?

I think we agree we can’t continue as we are – that’s why we’re here today.

Do we continue to pay €220 per hectare to vicariously subsidise wealthy corporates? Growing barley for malting, not food for people to the tune €20million year?

We all like a dram, but surely, it’s a luxury! Can the market not support such non-food products?

So, do we continue down the road of “sustainable intensification”?

  • Of developing practices like feed lot beef?
  • Giving handouts for select “wild” areas and hammering others?
  • Increasing our use of fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides – themselves created in carbon intensive systems in response to ever evolving pests and diseases?

Or do we develop/support low-input extensive systems?

  • Encouraging low carbon HNV farming
  • Strategically integrating forestry and utilising varied browsing patterns of sheep and cattle for maximum environmental benefits
  • In many areas of Scotland, these methods currently receive a mere €10 p/hectare – to grow food

A fellow Lantra winner, works on Mull, on zero-sub farm producing grass & clover fed beef. Other colleagues and peers are choosing to run farms without subsidy, because the system is a nightmare for small producers.

We used to farm using low-input extensive systems and sure, we didn’t have the same number of people to feed – but are we capable of feeding them now?

Do we continue to operate in our silos and not endeavour to find common ground with everyone else in the countryside?

There is the old saying “Cheap food isn’t good, and good food isn’t cheap” And changing the current systems will require innovation, and a mindset shift from producers and markets.


Why do I believe subsidy needs a re-write?

Intrinsic in the current subsidy system is the Perverse Incentive. The result of taking a broad sweeping approach – rather than looking at what is needed locally.

We have spent so long subsidising unsustainable practices. Evidenced by spruce in the Flow Country and soil erosion and run off.

Both soil and peat have taken thousands of years to form, hours to ruin, and will take decades to restore – at huge public cost. Because of past subsidy schemes, we’ve removed hedgerows, grown unsustainable crops, and homogenised our methods.

It takes 1% of total global energy to make ammonia for fertiliser – this ISN’T sustainable.

To my mind, any future we have must focus on integration with other land managers, letting communities decide what they need locally, and building resilience into our all systems


I had the opportunity to visit Uganda – an amazing, vibrant country – and I saw people there giving up their farmland to grow non-food products and cut flowers for export – a story shared across the continent. The human population in Africa is growing rapidly – so equally, what right do we have a right to cut back on production in the UK, to protect our biodiversity, whilst importing more and more, and trashing someone else’s ecosystem and culture?

We are just some of young land managers of the future, but if we don’t act and get this right now, we’ll become part of an unremarkable past.

Looking around this showground, we have an ever-growing store of knowledge and research, and must not be afraid to use it to find ways combine food and with nature.

We are in the lucky place of being able to cherry-pick the best of the old techniques, and supplement them with new technology.

Whatever course of action we take, we must realise our choices impact – locally, nationally, internationally.

Going forward, we must be THINKING GLOBAL – while ACTING LOCAL

As they would say in Uganda –

Kufanya kazi pamoja, tutakuwa na ujao mzuri sana

Working together, we will have a very good future.


Thank you.

Being part of this debate was a great experience; giving me a chance to reevaluate my own ideas and preconceptions about agriculture, land use, and subsidy; and to think about ways we can move forward.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and getting to know the other panelists who I know, from what I’ve seen and heard, will continue to do their best for the future of their industry.

Panel - Rebecca
Photograph Description: The Oxford Farming Conference debate panel standing outside in the sun. Left to right: Colin Ferguson, Sarah Allison, Megan Rowland, and David Lawrie. (Photo credit: Rebecca Dawes)

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