SPEAKING to an audience of farmers at an NFU meeting – local, regional or national – is always a challenge. They are, as a breed, sceptical, tough and used to seeing through smokescreens. They dislike excuses and are very focused on what they need for themselves, their families, their businesses and the land and livestock they care for.

As the MSP for Argyll and Bute, I have come to know some of the NFU activists in the local branches as friends as well as constituents, but I make sure I am well briefed before I attend any local meeting with them. Even so – and even after serving as an environment minister in the agricultural portfolio and now dealing with such issues in the Brexit brief on a daily basis – they can still be testing events.

I don’t recall, however, being publicly jeered at by one of them, but that was the fate (apparently) of Douglas Ross, the charmless MP for Moray and new junior minister at the Scotland Office, when he addressed the Scottish NFU AGM in Glasgow on Thursday.

According to Farmers Weekly, this happened when Ross arrogantly suggested in answer to a question from a farmer that “clear labelling should be enough to deter consumers from buying cheap food imports”, brushing off any idea of keeping firmly and legally in step with the high food standards presently imposed by European law.

The same journal reported that immediately afterwards, Scottish NFU president Andrew McCornick responded by saying to the hapless minister: “If we are going to allow products into this country that would be illegal for us to produce, that is not acceptable.”

McCornick has a strong point. As he added later, the UK Government would be selling farmers “down the river” if it allowed two sets of food standards to develop – one for imported food which would be substantially reduced and sell for lower prices, and one for locally produced food that would be more expensive.

The outcome of that in any free market is inevitable – the cheap and bad will chase out the more expensive and good, bankrupting many Scottish food businesses. Given how such businesses have grown in the past 13 years – a policy

devised and driven, incidentally, by Richard Lochhead, the MSP for Moray, in his nine years as agriculture secretary – Ross’s declaration poses a severe, indeed existential, threat to many Scottish success stories including lots in his own constituency, where he should recall he hung on by his fingertips in December’s election.

Moreover, if that policy also extends to the entire food and drink industry then it will also decimate the whisky sector – which is a major employer in Moray – because some American producers are desperate to sell their product, not matured for a minimum of three years, into the UK market on the same shelves, and with the same name, as the real thing produced with generations of care and experience by craftsmen and women in Scotland and laid down in carefully stipulated conditions for that minimum period.

McCornick went on to say, publicly, to Ross that he and his fellow farmers were very anxious that “whoever is negotiating these trade deals” is made aware of these matters and added: “We would like to see something with a bit of teeth in here to make sure that is not happening.”

As it happens the person in charge of all these trade deals, working directly with Boris Johnson, is someone who should certainly know about such things.

David Frost was chief executive of the whisky industry trade body, the Scotch Whisky Association from January 2014 to November 2016 and even served briefly on the First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe.

I hope Frost will pay heed but there is also another way of ensuring that “a bit of teeth” is added to the process and the issues kept to the fore.

That is for the UK Government to finally honour the promises they have made for the past three and a half years about respecting the devolved settlement, and as a result ensure that the UK negotiating stance on the key issues in food and drink standards is reached only after detailed discussion with the Scottish Government, within whose devolved competence those matters actually lie.

As with genetically modified crops, we know that the highest standards are not a barrier to markets, but a vital attraction for our core and continuing customers.

In other words, we know – unlike Ross and his Tory colleagues – the value of things, not just their price.