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Work underway to make Scotland a Good Food Nation, MSPs told

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Mairi Gougeon was questioned about a number of concerns which have been raised by campaigners.

A Scottish Government minister has attempted to reassure critics of a government bill on creating a Good Food Nation following claims the proposals are too narrow. 

Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Island, told a Holyrood committee that the Good Food Nation Bill - currently being considered by MSPs - presents an opportunity and framework for future work. 

In October last year the Scottish Government announced new legislation that would see health boards and local authorities develop wide-ranging plans to help ensure good quality, locally sourced and produced food is a practical everyday reality for everyone ​. 

The Good Food Nation Bill would see public bodies produce good food nation plans to support social and economic wellbeing, the environment, health and economic development - laying the foundation for Scotland to become a Good Food Nation.

The plans were welcomed by campaigners, including Nourish Scotland and the Scottish Food Coalition, who have long called for a Bill that will provide a framework for Scotland’s food system.

The charities said a coherent and connected approach must be created to food policy, which facilitates a just transition to a fair, healthy and sustainable food system.

The proposals are currently being discussed at parliamentary committee level at Holyrood, with Nourish urging MSPs and others to ensure the Bill is strengthened to ensure the impact from its introduction is maximised. 

These changes include introducing a clarity of purpose to the legislation, as well as adding review mechanisms to the law to improve accountability. 

Nourish Scotland also said The Good Food Nation Bill would benefit from having ambitious targets to drive action and align with the sustainable development goals.

Speaking ahead of Ms Gougeon’s appearance in front of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee on Wednesday, the charity’s chief executive, Pete Ritchie said the Bill was an “opportunity to put the right to food into Scots law and start levelling up our food system”.

The minister told MSPs in Holyrood: “Now our journey to becoming a Good Food Nation has been a long one which was unfortunately disrupted by the pandemic. But it’s also a journey that is very much underway.”

Committee chair Finlay Carson MSP reiterated that evidence collated by the committee saw other witnesses criticise the Bill for a lack of ambition, due to a lack of targets within the existing framework. 

He said it is hard at the moment to see whether the legislation will deliver, asking why so much is being left to secondary legislation which parliament cannot scrutinise fully. 

Ms Gougeon said she understood the concerns of those giving evidence when it comes to how narrow the bill is, but the minister said the Bill is simply a framework to be built upon. 

She said this underpins the work being done already and gives this a legislative basis.

SNP MSP Karen Adam questioned calls for targets in the Bill, warnings that the political landscape could change dramatically - even in the coming months - asking what could be used as markers for outcomes from the law. 

The Cabinet Secretary said that the breadth of the Bill could mean targets become the focus, rather than driving “fundamental change”. 

She said targets were not put on the face of the bill as these may change over time, meaning that primary legislation may need to be amended as these become “out of date”. 

Labour’s Mercedes Villalba raised concerns from the Scottish Food Coalition, and their calls for targets around improved working conditions and pay for food workers in the coming years, as well as childhood obesity and food waste levels.

Ms Villalba asked whether these should be included - with Ms Gougeon responding that she had met the coalition regarding these “critically important” issues but that she was particularly interested in meeting outcomes. 

The Labour MSP said: “I suppose there is a concern that food workers in particular are facing food poverty, so the people producing out food are not able to afford it themselves. I don’t think any of us want to see that ocnitnuing and for the buck to be passed back and forth between different agencies or levels or government. So it would be really good to have a really clear commitment from the government, today if possible, that you do want to see collective bargaining rights for food workers and see them paid a real living wage.”

Ms Gougeon said that the bill looked to create a coherent way of working in the food industry, adding that all of these issues are critically important and the government is committed to addressing them. 

The committee’s chair, Mr Carson, also questioned whether there will be any consultation on the secondary legislation, and how broad this would be. 

Ms Gougeon said plans would be set out for the secondary legislation which would then be consulted on.

Nourish Scotland said the Rural Affairs Committee should be commended in its persistence in asking important questions during the evidence session, claiming the Government was impressive in its reluctance to provide answers and had chosen to kick the can down the road.