Agriculture and Climate Change: Evidence on Influencing Farmer Behaviours

This report sets out to answer a number of questions relating to farming behaviour and meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets.

9. Conclusions

9.1 Why this programme is important

Given Scotland's ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets, farmers have a key role to play in mitigating climate change. There is a large and growing evidence base in relation to influencing environmental behaviours, and much of this has relevance to the farming population. Nevertheless, farmers, as managers of a biophysical resource, operate in circumstances that are distinct from other industries. Climate variability has a strong influence on yield, productivity and, ultimately, farm income. The history of subsidisation is another unique factor within this industry, especially when adaptation to changing circumstances has to be considered. So it is important to have a good understanding of factors influencing farmer behaviours, as well as what is known about the effectiveness of the policy measures available to, and in use by, the Scottish Government.

A good deal of literature has emerged within this field, and many of the findings from these studies are relevant to Scotland. Within the context of climate change related behaviours, a need was recognised to collate the available evidence to understand: factors influencing farmer behaviours; the effectiveness of approaches taken by governments to influence farmer behaviours; factors influencing uptake of policy measures and how uptake might be improved. This report has also provided the opportunity to look at the types of policy levers which are, and are not, at present being used by the SG.

The perspectives of a range of 'opinion formers' who are familiar with Scotland's farmers' current experiences and views add value to the work of the evidence gathering programme.

The work is timely because of the need to meet the interim target of a 42% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020. There is also the opportunity to influence measures which could be implemented under CAP reform after 2013, and the next phase of the SRDP, as well as feeding into the ongoing development of agricultural and climate change policy more generally. Accordingly, we seek to answer a number of pertinent questions related to farming behaviours and meeting GHG emissions targets.

9.2 Is change practical and possible?

It is important to acknowledge the need for a range of policy measures, and to take account of regional and farm-specific circumstances. Farmers may be constrained by their ability to make changes to their businesses; for example because of the size, type, and geography of the farm; tenancy arrangements etc. Where relevant, the issue of climate change needs to be contextualised to local farming circumstances.

Although farmers are influenced by a complex mixture of factors, uptake of measures is improved by allowing greater ease to adopt newer, or change present, practices, through flexibility within regulation, access to finance, or by appealing to the farmer's underlying values and motivations. There are also particular times and circumstances when farmers are more receptive to change - it is important to capitalise on these.

The segmentation approach, adopted and promoted by Defra, provides a means for targeting initiatives or for engagement: i.e. to represent different farming styles. Although there are limitations to the approach, there is a real opportunity to use Scotland's Farm Accounts Survey (FAS) to begin to relate performance to values and attitudes which infer farmers' approach to their businesses. SAC have confirmed that there are plans to add a short questionnaire to the FAS in 2013 to gather information that will facilitate segmentation, although the farmer types developed for Scotland may be different from the Defra typology. This should also allow more accurate forecasts to be made regarding uptake of different measures and, in turn, allow better targeted initiatives which are sensitive to farmers' value systems, as well as their circumstances.

9.3 How can uptake of measures be encouraged?

A range of different climate change mitigation measures already exist in Scotland for farmers. It is important to be aware of the initiatives available, the interplay (and possible dissonance) between different policy approaches, and whether evidence exists to assess their effectiveness. This programme has identified a number of key issues that need to be addressed:

  • Cultural capital issues. It is important to farmers that they are able to demonstrate their expertise, and that signs of their skills are visible to others. Productivist symbols are easy to demonstrate; environmental stewardship ones are less so
  • Encouraging innovation. There are many good reasons why farmers tend towards caution, but there will always be potential innovators who can be encouraged. Since farmers are influenced by their peer group, it is important to ensure that innovative farmers are supported as exemplars. Allowing farmers more innovation in conservation practices, through providing more flexibility about how they meet defined goals, may encourage a sense of pride in their expertise
  • Demonstrating new farming techniques/technologies. Farmers appreciate the opportunity to try things out for themselves, but they have limited time to travel to events, and need to be sure that techniques/technologies will work on their type and size of farm, in their geographical region and with their soil conditions etc. Demonstration activity does not necessarily require a permanent network of fixed farms. Using a wider range of farms for specific activities might be a more flexible option and make it more convenient and relevant for farmers to attend demonstration events
  • Mandatory and voluntary issues. Mandatory policy measures will have higher levels of uptake but, if farmers resent them, there are implications for the cost of monitoring and enforcement, as well as breakdowns in trust between farmers and policy makers/regulators, and possible spillover in terms of lack of uptake of voluntary measures. In particular, farmers need to understand the rationale for cross compliance measures, and be convinced by the science behind these measures. If farmers are encouraged to adopt actions voluntarily, long-term behaviour change is more likely, as actions become embedded within individual habits, and may contribute to changing social norms within the farmer peer-group
  • Collective action. Climate change, like many environmental challenges, has many impacts which are difficult to address at the level of the individual farm. In addition, major renewables initiatives may only be feasible if farmers collaborate. There is mixed evidence in relation to collective action, however. Further research (to examine models operating in other OECD countries, for example) may provide useful lessons for Scotland
  • Considering all available policy levers and obtaining a mix of measures working in tandem. Focus farms use all four types of levers. It is not always necessary to bring in all four, depending on the circumstance and desired outcome, but it may be useful to consider which are not being used at present, and whether/how they could be, within the context of climate change
  • Working with farmers. It is important to consider the farming industry when building agricultural policy, in order to build trust and for policy makers to benefit from the experience and expertise of farmers.

9.4 What do farmers need to know about the impact of climate change, and what they can do to mitigate its effects?

Evidence suggests that it is important to focus on 'the message,' whether that is information about regulations; actual and potential impacts of climate change; initiatives/funding available to farmers; news of opportunities to try out new technology, or any other issue about which the SG and its agencies communicate with farmers. The nature of the message; how it is expressed and presented; who communicates it and how; are all important issues that need to be considered. It is also important to consider wider knowledge exchange activities that acknowledge farmer experience and expertise; and involve farmers in discussion and direction setting. In tandem with this, the development of scientific goals and research, and how results are communicated should be considered to help both parties understand and respect each other's needs.

Policy makers are already aware of many of the issues relating to effective communication and a range of communicators (such as agricultural advisers, NFUS, SEPA) are already taking them into consideration. However, there are always opportunities for improvement. The Defra good practice guide, Influencing environmental behaviour using advice, provides a useful range of principles and a checklist for the provision of effective advice. A Rural Advisory Service working group, convened by the SG, is currently tasked with identifying a shortlist of viable options for the provision of rural advice under the new SRDP, and there are opportunities to take into consideration the key messages from this evidence gathering exercise in relation to improving uptake, communication and knowledge exchange.

The interviews with a range of opinion formers in the agricultural community, carried out as part of this programme of work, highlighted a number of issues where there are specific information needs, as well as misperceptions and misunderstandings in the farming community. For example:

  • There appears to be confusion among farmers about the potential impact of climate change on agriculture in Scotland. Farmers need to be fully aware of the implications of more unpredictable/severe weather; and the likely increase in the number, type and virulence of disease and pest outbreaks, as well as the potential benefits (such as longer growing seasons). If farmers are more aware of what climate change is likely to mean to them, they are more likely to engage with, and be receptive to, actions intended to mitigate climate change
  • Farmers have limited time to spend on knowledge exchange activities. The interviewees suggested that, for example, clear and accessible charts of past rainfall would allow farmers to monitor changes from year to year. However, changes in weather over a short period will not necessarily be indicative of a longer term trend. Given the demands for reducing uncertainties, communicating predicted patterns in rainfall and temperature should perhaps be investigated further
  • Uncertainty exists at the planning stage, through possible regulatory strictures related to target setting. Some farmers appear to be expecting emissions targets to be introduced at the level of the individual farm, and are planning to wait for targets to be introduced before implementing their 'quick hit.' It is important to make it clear to farmers that targets will relate to broad management practices, rather than to individual farms, and that farmers will not be penalised if they adopt technologies and practices that anticipate targets
  • Whatever farmers believe about the impacts of climate change, it appears that many feel there is nothing they, as individuals, can do to affect the climate ('it's just a drop in the ocean'). There are similar views emerging from work related to the general public, and a number of sociological and psychological theories are directed at stimulating a greater awareness of an individual's contribution to creating change
  • There appears to be a feeling within farming that supermarkets demonstrate inconsistent practice by expecting particular environmental standards from farmers, and then shipping, flying and driving goods in from around the world. Better information about the actual impact of food miles travelled and specific agricultural techniques would be helpful
  • Farmers' trust can be damaged when the messages they receive at different times appear to be inconsistent. When communicating with farmers, it is important to acknowledge that science evolves, and that actions encouraged at one time will not necessarily be the same as those promoted two or three years later. Future guidance should make this clear.

9.5 How do we achieve sustainable farmer behaviours in relation to climate change mitigation?

It is important to support and promote the activities of farmers who are innovators and early adopters of technology and practices which will mitigate GHG emissions, since many farmers are influenced by the activities of their peers. Accordingly, the role of changing social norms is important in achieving sustainable farming behaviours. Farmers who will not engage present a significant challenge to policy makers, and the social norm route is worthy of investigation to help capture and influence those who are disengaged. Furthermore, it has been suggested that new channels of information transfer may be more attractive to farmers in this group, but more research is needed to explore engagement techniques.

Many farmers respond to messages about business benefit rather than to public concerns related to climate change. Although economic incentives can induce positive environmental behaviour among farmers, it is questionable whether there is necessarily any corresponding attitudinal change. Where behaviours are changed without corresponding changes in attitudes, they are potentially unsustainable without continued support and intervention. However, once farmers have engaged in an environmental project, this may impact positively upon their management of other areas on the farm, or their likelihood of engaging in other or more ambitious environmental projects.

There is an increasing body of evidence on the importance of using intrinsic values (concern about bigger-than-self problems) in a consistent and systematic way to drive long-term culture change. Values can be both activated (by encouraging people to think about the importance of particular things) and further strengthened, for example through exposure to these values through influential peers and the media, so that they become easier to activate. Promoting farmers' environmental stewardship role, in addition to extrinsic (business benefit) motives in farming would be likely to encourage a balance of business and environmentally oriented behaviours, stimulating sustained behaviour change.


Email: Angela Morgan

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