Communities, Food and Land Reform in Scotland

Food sustainability, land reform and food security in Scotland

A variety of definitions fall under the term 'sustainable food production', a vagueness similar to the term 'sustainable development'. First used in 1987 when the report 'Our Common Future' was released by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, sustainable development was described as ‘the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. Sustainable development as composed of three elements: economic development, social development and environmental protection (United Nations, 1987). The term food security has been defined as "when all people, at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life" (FAO, 1996). Issues of sustainable food production and consumption have become increasingly visible in debates about sustainable development strategy of Scotland. The Scottish Government, in line with the European Union, has started to incorporate food sustainability in the political agenda to foster the creation of a 'Good Food Nation' (Figure 5.10). However, what these sustainable food production-related policies and the generic approach mean for small and remote communities is not well understood. Furthermore, Scotland is considered to be 'food secure' because of the openness to trade (Scottish environment LINK, 2011). However this condition of security appears to be very much related to a large dependence on imports and the grant system developed by the European Union Common Agricultural Policy and its targeting of 'less favoured' agricultural areas, such as large parts of in Scotland. Figure 5.11 show that 84% of Scottish land is been categorised as Less favoured Area a designation introduced in 1972 by the European Union to support farming in areas of difficult production (Macdonald,2000). A further aspect of this political context in Scotland is the shape and character of Land Reform that seeks to address Scotland’s position is one the places with the most unequal distribution of land in the world (see figure 5.12). Consultation on the potential changes to land ownership structures led to the introduction of a still contested Land Reform Bill in June 2015 which aims to promote measures in order to reduce the amount of land one individual can own and, particularly, to strengthen the ability for communities to buy land and access natural resources to 'further sustainable development' (Scottish Government, 2015, part 5).

Legislation/policyAuthorityPerception of Sustainable food?
A recipe for success, 2009 Scottish Government

First National Food and Drink Policy recognizing key role of Food and Drink to contribute sustainable economic growth. Promotes a development of a food system that 'that supports better public health and embraces environmental sustainability'. (p. 10)

Sets out objective of increasing locally sourced food production as opposed to imported food

Low Carbon Scotland, 2010 Scottish Government

Emphasis on relationship between locally produced food systems and reduction of carbon emissions.

Sets out a 'farming for better climate' strategy to encourage farmers to adopt efficiency measures while maintaining a competitive farming industry (Article 7.13)

Good Food Nation, 2014 Scottish Government

Lays out the strategic role of sustainable food for moving towards a sustainable system. Emphasis not only on export but also on the quality and the sources of the food consumed.

Common Agricultural Policy Reform 2014-2020, 2013 European Commission

Marginal role in the agenda, however proposes a measure to promote sustainable food production with the 'Greening scheme', a payment scheme which rewards agricultural practices that benefits biodiversity and protect the environment. Focus on permanent grassland and crop diversification.

A resource-efficient Europe – Flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 Strategy, 2015 European Parliament

Stresses key role of food sector in reducing depletion of natural resources calling for "…incentives for healthier and more sustainable production and consumption of food."

Figure 5.10 Relevant national and European policies on sustainable food production

Figure 5.11 Scotland as a severely disadvantaged agricultural area. Source: Scottish Government, 2014

Figure 5.12 Land ownership in Scotland. Source: Andy Wightman, 2013

Food sustainability and the Isle of Eigg

It was in this historical and policy context that a study wanted to engage people and communities in remote, rural locations in order to:

  • Understand what 'food sustainability' or 'sustainable food production' means to the people who live on Eigg
  • Investigate how community ownership of the land can contribute to sustainable food production
  • Explore the barriers to sustainable food production
  • Compare the food production and consumption practices on the island
  • Explore potential solutions for the implementation of an effective sustainable food system on the island.

One such rural community is found on the Isle of Eigg, a 7300-acre island some l5 miles from the fishing port of Mallaig, in the western coast of Scotland (see Figure 5.13). One of a group of four islands known as the Small Isles, Eigg is also included with the Small Isles in a larger chain of islands known as the Inner Hebrides (Dressler, 2007). It has a population of approximately 100 people (O’Brien, 2014). Research was carried out with farmers, crofters (see Box 5.1 for description) and residents involved in food production and sales between May and July 2015 in order to:

Figure 5.13 Location of Eigg. Source: International Studies of Renewable Energy Regions

The remoteness of the location, heterogeneity of soils on the island ranging from the poor, acidic soils of hilly land to fertile grassland and shore land (Dressler, 2007) combined with the adverse weather conditions makes the life on the island challenging, particularly with regards to the practice of activities related to production of food. Historically, the production of food on the island had always occupied a central role, however, agricultural activities were rather limited with the main production dominated by oats, barley and cattle before the introduction of potato in 1773 (Martins, 1987).

In 17th century, with the introduction of the feudal tenure system, the traditional communal farms of the clans were substituted by tenant farms and small crofts in which the inhabitants were forced into the production of kelp, useful to produce gunpowder and considered more profitable than the agricultural activities by landowners. The abolition of the feudal system in Scotland only happened in 2004 with the Feudal abolition Act which ‘confers outright ownership of land on those who were formerly vassals under the feudal system' (Scottish government, 2004).

Box 5.1 What is a croft?
A croft is a small agricultural land holding typical of the Highlands area of Scotland. Crofting evolved from the period of the Highland Clearances when much of the Highland’s population was evicted from the land to make space for sheep ranches or deer and grouse estates. After 1886 with the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act, crofting became a secure land tenure system as it ensured the inheritance of the control of the land to those who were working it. It is the main land tenure system in the Highlands and a croft ranges, on average, from 5 hectares to 50 hectares size.

In this regard the Island of Eigg has become somewhat a symbol as in the 12th of June 1997 a successful campaign to return the island to community ownership after despotic land lordship allowed the people on Eigg to be in power of their island and to administrate the land's resources. Through the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust people could be involved in consultations to improve the conditions of the new acquired land (Boyd et al, 2000). The very first projects as community owned island concerned the establishment of a system of social housing to ensure fair and proportionated prices in housing and to incentivize the repopulation of the island and the set-up of an electric grid powered by a combination of hydro, wind and solar energy in 2008 as discussed in section 3 (Scottish Government, 2009; Ashden Awards, 2010). Data was collected from public sources, historical records and interviews with thee residents, crofters and farmers outlined in Figure 5.14. It has been estimated that approximately 1052 hectares of land are employed in the production of food.

Figure 5.14 Aerial Photo of Eigg with interview locations. Source: Google Earth.

Figure 5.15 Annual ceilidh to celebrate Eigg's Buy-out.

Figure 5.16 View of Cleadale and crofts.

Despite the amount of land available and that every household has some space that allows growing of vegetables and crops only five households out of thirty seem to be partially self-sufficient, with the highest rate of 50 % self-sufficiency registered by Crofter C. Because the little food produced in the crofts is mainly destined to self-consumption it was not possible to give a precise estimate of the productivity coming from the crofting activities. However the current products of the island are identified to be related to the production of meat and particularly of cattle, sheep and lambs. Lamb and sheep which are registered to be the main export of the island. The animals are reared on the island and then send to the mainland to be fattened and to enter the food chain. Only a very small number is kept for self-consumption in the households that have them. Most of the animals are chickens or sheep, as cows are considered difficult to process, store and consume for their size (Crofter B, Farmer A). Other food produced on the island is grown either on the soil or in the polytunnels and it is mainly pulses, green vegetables, berries and apples Sheep and lamb are kept at the farm level. Vegetables, fruit and small animals like chickens are part of the croft level. On the community level there are an orchard and the common grazing area where cows are kept (Figures 5.17-5.19).

Figure 5.17 Strawberries growing at Shore cottage. Image A .Mazzu 06/2015.

Figure 5.18 Community orchard. Image A .Mazzu 06/2015.

Figure 5.19 Polytunnel in Kildonnan area. Image A .Mazzu 06/2015.

The prevailing aspect of sustainability in food production was determined by the cost-benefit factors with a secondary interest for the social and the environmental aspects. The ecological aspects (protection of natural resources and enhancing of resilience in communities) were important to some interviewees, however, a farmer highlighted the market demands on people like him as he had been informed by authorities that ‘a single farmer needs at least 1000 lambs and 120 cows farmed more intensively to be considered a sustainable enterprise’.

The cost-benefit perspective of the farmers is understandable when considering that even if these are small agricultural farming systems on a remote island, they are still part of the free market system which is competitive by nature. Farmers receive subsidies from the European Union to carry out their activities, but also to compete within that particular framework. Five main reasons why “Eigg is not sustainable” were recognised and summarised as challenges below.