Supporting our Dairy Industry

Yesterday afternoon, Parliament held a debate on the challenges facing the dairy sector in Scotland.

The debate followed a short inquiry conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee, of which I am a member.

The inquiry was prompted by concerns about First Milk, a farmer owned cooperative which buys milk from over 1,000 farmers to process for market.  In January this year, the organisation was forced to delay payment to its members.

The Committee also considered the global context in dairy and the action needed to provide stability, improve relationships and improve transparency.

In my opening speech I highlighted the challenges faced in the Scottish dairy sector and called for more urgency from the Scottish Government in implementing their Dairy Plan.

The Committee’s report neatly summarised where I think our ambition for the sector should be –

“…to work towards a more sustainable, equitable and profitable dairy sector in Scotland where all producers are paid an appropriate price for the goods they produce, and where consumers can make informed decisions about what to buy, based on clear information about where produce comes from and how much it costs to produce…”

Dairy farming is a hugely important industry in Scotland but price volatility poses a real threat to the livelihood of individual farmers.

The issues raised in the Committee’s inquiry helped inform the Scottish Government’s recently published Action Plan.

While the plan takes steps to address some of the short-term issues, I’m disappointed that the Scottish Government’s timeline delays the start to some of the key actions we need now. There is also a lack of detail on how these actions will be taken forward to provide stability over the longer term.

Today we’re no clearer on how pricing through the supply chain will be made more transparent or how new investment will be delivered to support diversification into non-milk products.  I asked the Cabinet Secretary for clarity on the work being carried out by Scottish Enterprise and HIE to identify the best opportunities to develop new processing facilities to add value to the fresh milk produced in Scotland as the timeline of December is months away.  We’re also no closer to knowing what steps the Scottish Government will take to reduce the burden of transport costs for rural and island producers.

With 2015 marking the Year of Food and Drink, we need more than the warm words of the Action Plan.  We need to see renewed focus from the Scottish Government to deliver the best deal for Scottish dairy farmers.

That means much faster action on developing new markets and new products for Scottish dairy produce.  It means retailers working harder to promote existing and new products when they come on the market and better use of labelling to highlight local, Scottish and UK produce.   It means the public sector maximising the opportunities to buy locally and to ask the hospitality and catering sectors to do more to support local producers too.

Finally, as consumers, we need to be asking more questions about where our food comes from and where possible buying local.