Citizens' forums, and attitudes to agriculture, environment and rural priorities: research report

Results of an independent study into Scottish public attitudes to the environment, agriculture and rural development.

Executive Summary

Background and methodology

The Scottish Government commissioned Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research Ltd. Involve and Newcastle University to undertake a study into Scottish public attitudes to the environment, agriculture and rural development. The research addresses the recommendation put forward by the Agricultural Champions, a steering group tasked with informing future agricultural policy, that "policies must be guided by real evidence about what the public values"[1]. The research aims to gather evidence on public priorities, particularly given the opportunity to develop replacements to current policy - Common Agricultural Policy (hereafter CAP) - as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.

To ensure the research both informs and listens to public opinion, the study methodology was four-fold, encompassing:

  • a literature and evidence review covering national and international research studies;
  • 15 in-depth qualitative interviews among those with special diets who may otherwise be underrepresented in the research study;
  • a nationally representative online survey of 2,345 Scottish adults;
  • 2 citizens' forums to deliberate on the issues in scope, one forum was convened in Motherwell which is a primarily urban location, and the other in Montrose which is a primarily rural location.

Key findings and points of consideration

Participants at the Citizens' Forums were asked to identify key principles that should underpin the agricultural sector in Scotland. In Motherwell, participants developed 10 different principles, and similarly in Montrose participants developed 13 different principles.

There were a number of common and consistent themes identified from the principles at each Citizens' Forum which have been grouped together. These grouped principles have informed the shape of the report as they point to key aspects of consideration when thinking about the development of future agricultural policy in Scotland.

Key principles include maintaining a healthy and productive use of land; protecting animal welfare; ensuring high quality food production; advancing environmental protection; ensuring financial assistance is based on greatest need; and raising the profile of the sector through education and increasing public awareness.

High quality food production

There was widespread agreement (86%) that Scottish farming is vital for the success of the Scottish economy. A similar proportion (83%) agreed that Scottish farming provides a vital public service to the people in Scotland.

Animal welfare (21%), impact on health (20%), and cost (19%), were the most commonly cited "essential" factors that inform decisions about food consumption.

Through the process of deliberation, there was higher levels of importance attributed to locally sourced food - the post-deliberation survey found just under half (49%) of participants at the Citizen's Forums preferred food to be produced in Scotland.

Moreover, the research identified the view that consumers need more support to balance the priorities of cost, quality and local food production.

There was a recognition that Brexit may have a negative impact on a range of food consumption factors. Importantly, 68% think that Brexit will have a negative impact on cost which is one of the most essential factors driving food consumption choices.

  • Framing agriculture as a public good will be useful in ensuring public support for the sector, however the manner in which public goods are conferred from farming need to be demonstrable to the public;
  • There is appetite for more information on the origins of food, so the public is more conscious of the priorities of animal welfare and the environment when considering food consumption and production;
  • Awareness and interest in the origins and production of food is coupled with a desire to see more food grown and produced in Scotland, though consumers want to see that balanced with reasonable process and guarantees of quality,

Protecting animal welfare

There was a recognition of the wider social responsibility of the agricultural sector, in particular with regard to protecting animal welfare.

Animal welfare was the top factor determining public choices about food consumption. Moreover, 39% cited improving animal welfare standards as an important priority for the future funding of agriculture policy in Scotland.

The research identified concern among consumers about a potential decrease in animal welfare standards in the transition period between repealing European policy and implementing Scottish policy on the issue.

Considering the importance of protecting animal welfare found in the research, it is perhaps unsurprising that when thinking of the future funding of farms in Scotland, there was a higher level of preference to prioritise funding for vegetable farms as opposed to meat producing farms.

  • While there is little awareness of current animal welfare standards, consumers view the issue as very important and are keen to see evidence of standards being implemented,
  • The UK's departure from the EU gives cause to concern for consumers on the issues of food quality, costs and animal welfare, with a preference that quality/welfare standards are at least maintained while costs kept as low as possible,

Advancing environmental protection

Support for advancing environmental protection as part of future agri-policy was strengthened through the provision of information on the issue: there was higher levels of agreement that the farming sector should do more to protect and conserve the environment, post-deliberation.

The research found slightly higher levels of knowledge and awareness of the relationship between agriculture and the environment in rural areas, comparative to urban areas. Moreover, there was consistently higher levels of support among younger people (those aged 35 and under) on the issue of advancing environmental protection throughout the research.

Almost all (90%) agreed that without a wide variety of plants and animals, the environment would worsen; and a majority (83%) agreed that the quality of drinking water in Scotland is greater than in other parts of the UK.

The top three priorities for future environmental policy include investing in better flood prevention and management of flood water at times of flooding (59%); increasing the variety of plant and animal life (56%); and setting stricter targets for improving air quality (55%).

  • There is little spontaneous link among the public between agriculture and broader environmental issues, providing an opportunity for those linkages to be addressed through the provision for more and better information,
  • Consumers view the responsibility for environmental protection as a joint one between farmers, consumers and the wider food processing and manufacturing industry.

Keeping the land healthy and productive

The research identified effective land management and keeping the land healthy and productive as a key guiding principle for future agri-policy. This is pertinent given that 73% of Scotland's land is designated as agricultural.

The research found that the public recognise that there are competing demands on land use. Therefore, there is the view that there should be better cooperation among landowners on land management; to ensure that there is a balance between productive and unproductive use of land; and that land is nurtured, and ecosystems are preserved.

There was a recognition that farming can have benefits in nurturing the land; in particular mixed farming was cited as yielding benefits in terms of increasing biodiversity, and the aesthetics of landscapes.

On the issue of land management and food production there was the suggestion that a food map should be compiled to locate "where can we get certain types of goods and where is its optimal value to grow them", but also recognising areas where preservation is required to avoid environmental harm.

  • Future agri-policy should prioritise farming practices that ensure that the land is healthy, such as mixed-farming which helps to encourage biodiversity.
  • There is a view that there should be a diversification of land use to include both productive and non-productive uses of the land. Moreover, underpinning all land use, there should be the commitment to preserve and enhance soil quality, biodiversity, water quality and ecosystems.

Supporting the rural economy and rural communities

The research identified supporting the rural economy and rural communities as a guiding principle for future agri-policy

In particular, there was a preference for economic support for rural communities given the prevalence of rural poverty and outward migration of working age adults in rural communities; moreover, there was also support for service provision to be strengthened in rural areas particularly transport and digital infrastructure and connectivity.

Reflecting perceptions of rural community issues, priorities for the future of rural communities included improving public transport links (65%); improving broadband connectivity (61%); and ensuring there are more jobs and opportunities for those who live in rural areas (52%).

Those in rural areas were more aware of the issues encountered by rural communities. Considering this finding, there was a view that future agricultural policy can hold the key to connecting urban and rural populations.

  • The public, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas of Scotland, want to see more jobs, opportunities and support for rural areas, particularly among those in remote small towns and remote rural locations,
  • One avenue for supporting rural areas which would attract public support is more community ownership of land and buildings. This could provide opportunities for rural communities to use land ownership to identify independent revenue streams and use these for local re-investment,
  • There is widespread support for improving digital connectivity in rural communities and an acknowledgement that there is a need to improve the extent to which rural communities can access services online.

Raising the profile of the sector

The research identified a need to raise the profile of the agricultural sector among the public as well as increase awareness of the scope of the sector.

Considering the relative importance of a range of government portfolios in terms of public spending, 5% prioritised agriculture relative to a range of government portfolios, a fifth (20%) prioritised the environment, and a small proportion (3%) prioritised rural development (3%). In particular, the findings related to rural development are pertinent when considering government proposals to mainstream rural community policy into all aspects of policymaking.

Qualitative research identified the issue of workforce sustainability for Scottish agriculture, which is another important consideration given the low profile of the sector among other government portfolios.

Reflecting the discussions about workforce, there was also mention of education provision in farming and agriculture to encourage new entrants to the sector but also to develop the skills of the existing workforce.

  • Unsurprisingly, there is little widespread knowledge of the agriculture sector, but there is significant public interest, particularly in linking the future of agriculture with the ongoing debate about the environment,
  • Consumers support the necessity to grow the agricultural workforce and recognise the potential benefits in driving improvements and modernisation.
  • A concerted drive to inform and educate the public about the future of the sector can build confidence among consumers and help ensure that consumers are effective advocates for the industry.

Financial assistance to the sector

The research identified support for the reallocation of financial assistance to the agricultural sector, both in terms of the allocation of funding to farmers but also in terms of the funding split among the three key priority areas of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Support for the current system of funding allocation to farmers remained low throughout the various data points of the research, suggesting that participants were generally interested in seeing change. Post-deliberation, however, there was an increase in preference for funding to be allocated based on advancing environmental goals.

Overall, more than half (55%) preferred funding within the Common Agricultural Policy to be reproportioned, seeing a greater share of funding going to support the natural environment and to help protect rural communities.

  • Results on the financial assistance to the agricultural sector most strongly indicate a change in views by virtue of the deliberative process;
  • Considering both the national survey and the outcome of the deliberative process there is support for the reallocation of financial support to the agricultural sector than is currently applied under the Common Agricultural Policy
  • There is support for funding to farmers to be based on advancing environmental goals, and supporting smaller farms;
  • However, the issue of support criteria being based on land quality with poorer quality land being prioritised was also cited, particularly among those residing in rural communities as there was a recognition of the wider socio-economic functions of farmers working on poorer quality land e.g. as anchor employers within rural areas;
  • In terms of funding allocations within the CAP, there was a clear preference (55%) for a greater allocation of support to the natural environment and rural communities.



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