Farm funding in Scotland – past, present and future

By Bruce Wilson, public affairs manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust

It’s fair to say that many of us in Scotland feel a deep affinity with farming and the landscapes and cultures it creates. However, the policy and the public money that supports the majority of farming isn’t well understood by the public in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s 2022-23 budget for agricultural support is significant, totalling just under £800 million. A new Agriculture Bill in the works, which is still to be consulted on, so there’s going to be increasing public and parliamentary scrutiny over policy and subsidy for farming. But what’s the historical context here?

In Scotland we’ve seen broad intensification of agriculture since World War Two. Post-war policy created bigger, more productive farms. The first main policy driver of this intensification was the Agricultural Act of 1947, but the second most significant driver came in 1973, with entry into the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union.

The system of regulations and incentives created by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has since then massively influenced domestic farming policy and, in turn, this has influenced our landscape and nature. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an important body set up to advise national governments on the science around ecosystems. IPBES cites land use change, including the intensification of agriculture, as one of the five major drivers of ecological decline.

Initially the CAP was almost entirely focused on maximising food production. But, by the early 1980s overproduction of food and the negative environmental and economic impacts of this single focus were well recognised. Subsequent reforms have tried to move financial support away from a system focused on production.

The EU now sees the CAP as a “partnership between agriculture and society, and between Europe and its farmers” which aims to:

  • support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, ensuring a stable supply of affordable food;
  • safeguard European Union farmers to make a reasonable living;
  • help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources;
  • maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU;
  • keep the rural economy alive by promoting jobs in farming, agri-food industries and associated sectors.

Agriculture is a devolved policy area, which means Scottish policy makers were given the opportunity to create a policy to replace the CAP when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016. The Scottish Parliament approved theAgriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Act 2020, which allows CAP measures, with some simplification, to continue until 2023 when a new Agriculture Bill will be brought forward.

The stated aim of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group is to “ensure our future policy stays broadly in line with the objectives of the new CAP as far as possible, to allow us to re-join the EU at a future point with minimal disruption”. This means that whatever policy is created cannot differ hugely from European policy, including policy setting out environmental commitments.

Luing cow and calf © Morgan Vaughan (

What happens next?

We understand that we can no longer just incentivise production at the expense of our environment and climate – we need a farm funding system that works for nature, climate, and people.

We’ve seen an encouraging vision from the Scottish government that states they will “transform how we support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.” As ever the devil will be in the, yet to be revealed, detail and we need to see what schemes the Scottish Government puts forward before we can say how likely it is that this vision will be realised. 

The current system simply pays people for the amount and quality of land they own or farm, with most of the money going to the biggest farms on the best land. There are no conditions attached to this money.

The Scottish Government has committed to retain “direct funding” support to farmers and crofters, albeit with a promise that 50% of this will be conditional on delivering for biodiversity and climate by 2025. This conditionality could be a positive step forward if public money is meaningfully used to address the biggest challenge of our era, the climate and nature crisis.

However, if this money is used for ill-defined, non-targeted schemes we will fail to meet our nature and climate targets. Let’s keep in mind that around 75% of our land is used for agriculture and if we don’t get funding properly aligned with delivering nature and climate targets, we will not meet them.

There is a very strong argument to say that all public money should have some conditions attached to it, especially given the climate and nature emergencies. 

It’s also important to remember that if half of this money is conditional, then the remaining half will be without conditions and not tied to delivering wider public benefits.  

To improve understanding and make sure those taking part in the consultation process are fully engaged we need a fully open governance approach. We need to see a transparent, accountable and participation focused approach that fosters democratic decisions – not closed-door forums with very little input beyond certain chosen groups. The Scottish Government must work hard to help the public understand and comment on the issues surrounding agricultural policy.

The Farm for Scotland’s Future campaign is calling on the Scottish Government to replace the decades-old farm funding system with one that works for nature, climate and people.

Please join the campaign.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of all the organisations backing the Farm for Scotland’s Future campaign.