28 February 2007

S2M-5655 Organic Farming

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 28 February 2007

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

… … …

Organic Farming

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5655, in the name of Sarah Boyack, on the future of Scotland's organic farming.

… … …

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): There has been a fair degree of change in the period of just more than four years since we last had a debate on organic farming—most of it has been for the better.

Having heard Andrew Arbuckle's less than enthusiastic support for organic farming, I understand why Iain Smith suggested, during a previous debate, that this debate should be truncated. He obviously wanted to avoid Liberal embarrassment, given that a Liberal minister is responsible for farming.

At the end of the debate, there is likely to be substantial consensus. We may come to similar conclusions for a variety of different reasons, but I suspect that we will all feel that the niche product that is organic farming—a niche product it is likely to remain more or less indefinitely—has an important contribution to make to farmers' profitability, to the good health of people in Scotland and, perhaps, if it is used in an appropriate way, to enable our children to better understand where their food comes from and make appropriate choices. Organic farming touches on many things beyond the farm gate.

The Executive's "Third Organic Annual Report", which I saw for the first time today, is interesting in its way. For example, it confirms that there are substantial problems in the pork industry. Under figure 6, it is noted that we cannot measure the amount of organic pork that is produced in Scotland. Because of the diktats of the processing industry and supermarkets, Scotland-produced pork goes elsewhere and we find it difficult to count it when it is returned for sale in Scotland.

The problem illustrates the fact that we must give further consideration not just to primary producers but to the chain from primary producers to the plate, which includes added-value processors who are able to deliver ready meals to appropriate organic standards. Ready meals are an increasingly important component of many people's diet—I plead guilty to buying them when I am in Edinburgh on parliamentary duty, when I cannot spend much time cooking, much as I would like to cook.

The report notes on page 8:

"The total of in conversion and fully organic land in Scotland has decreased by over 100,000 hectares".

However, the decrease has come about primarily because hill farmers have chosen not to remain registered as organic farmers, because of increased costs, which rather blurs our understanding of what is going on. It would be useful if the minister could enlighten our darkness on the matter.

Andrew Arbuckle talked about nitrates, which is an important subject throughout the farming sector. Were we to have a less blunt-instrument approach to our nitrate-vulnerable zones, we could farm in a more sustainable way in relation to nitrates. Instead of being driven by an arbitrary calendar that is probably appropriate in only one or two places in Scotland, seasons for spreading nitrates, which are largely a by-product of the milk industry, could be locally determined.

Mr Arbuckle: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, I am in the last minute of my speech.

I have difficulty with the claim that we are on target. According to the minutes of the 23rd meeting of the organic stakeholders group, which took place on 4 May 2006, the point was made that

"Data collection is going to prove very difficult".

Can the minister assure us that we are making the progress that she claims we are making? I am always suspicious when we are told that we are exactly on target.


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