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.


Background and aims

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.

In 2017, the Scottish Government appointed four Agricultural Champions to develop an agriculture strategy to guide the long-term sustainable future for Scottish agriculture.

The research study stemmed from the following recommendation from the interim report delivered by the Agricultural Champions[2]:

"The public must be better informed about Scottish farming and what it delivers, and policies must be guided by real evidence about what the public values. A civic conversation, both informing and listening to the public, must start now."

It is important to note at the outset that a key driver for undertaking public consultation in this area is the UK's decision to leave the European Union; currently, Scottish agriculture is governed by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Therefore, there is scope for developing replacements to the CAP, post-Brexit.

Even if Scotland were to remain within the European Union, the CAP is subject to far-reaching reforms, to simplify and modernise the policy, and limit its financing from the overall EU budget - the agricultural champions cite that "no change is not an option". Therefore, there is the opportunity and scope to rethink future policy for agriculture in Scotland.

At present, the UK Government has set out plans for an Agriculture Bill that will provide a replacement to the CAP and deliver a range of reforms. It lays the foundations for a future system based on public money for public goods. The proposed Bill places a priority on protecting and conserving the environment, in line with the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan. Importantly, it involves a transition period which will phase out income support provided to farmers.

While agriculture is a devolved matter, the Bill sets out plans for a common framework to be implemented which will enable the functioning of the UK internal market, meet international compliance standards and permit the negotiation of new trade agreements and international treaties.

Therefore, there is scope to shape the future direction of Scottish agricultural policy, though public consultation and engagement.

The Scottish Government's consultation "Stability and Simplicity proposals for a rural funding transition period"[3] is important in this respect: the paper details suggestions for a transition period of 3-5 years in which the policies of the CAP would be retained to enable consistency for farmers. It is suggested that during this time, where possible, simplifications will be made to deliver improved outcomes. Once a withdrawal agreement is reached between the UK government and the EU, the transition period would be aligned with the terms of the agreement. After the transition period, a new rural policy framework would be implemented that covers supporting farmers and food production as well as ensuring public investments are aligned with Scotland's ambitions for sustainable and inclusive growth.

A Scottish Bill is currently in the process of being developed to deliver the proposals set out in the Scottish Government's "Stability and Simplicity" consultation.

In conceiving of future agricultural policy, there is the view that the aims should be to deliver maximum social value by placing an emphasis on environmental matters but also on wider rural development objectives, in line with the sustainable and inclusive growth agenda.

The National Council of Rural Advisers set out that supporting the rural economy and rural communities should be mainstreamed within all policymaking[4]; and that indicators for rural development should be integrated within the National Performance Framework.

In line with this thinking, an important perspective is that advanced by the UN Environment Programme report on the "Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" which describes using a "whole system thinking" approach to address the challenges of future agriculture and food systems. The report takes the view that the system of subsidies which supports per hectare productivity may gloss over the other goals of equity and environmental sustainability which is key to a whole system approach. These are important points of consideration for future policy, post-CAP, and are grounded in the data collected on public attitudes towards future policy.

The public attitudes research, therefore, has been conducted on the backdrop of this live policy issue, and seeks to solicit public opinion on priorities for food production, consumption and agriculture, support for the rural economy and rural communities and environmental issues such as biodiversity, soil protection, climate change, air and water quality which are impacted by agricultural policy.

As the Agricultural Champions set out, continuous engagement with the public is required to ensure that the public interest is advanced in future agri-policy.

The aims of the study are threefold:

  • to explore public priorities, values, and attitudes of food consumption, diets, agriculture, environment and rural development priorities.
  • to explore knowledge and awareness of the Common Agricultural Policy and views on the three areas of CAP (agriculture, environment, and rural development).
  • to deliberate on priorities for future agri-policy, considering the extent to which the three areas of CAP should feature and be weighted within future policy.

Given the deliberative methods used within the research, the study also explored the extent to which attitudes change as a result of being exposed to new information.


The methodology comprises the following key strands:

methodology comprises the following key strands

Strand 1: A literature and evidence review of existing research on attitudes towards agriculture, food, environment and rural policies; as well as considerations for future Scottish agricultural policy, post-CAP. The document review was carried out by the research team using desk research methods.

Strand 2 (a): 15 in-depth qualitative interviews. The interviews explored issues of cost, authenticity, health, quality, and environment when considering food consumption and production in Scotland; and considered priorities for future agricultural policy reviewing the three areas of CAP.

The interviews were designed to explore the perspectives of groups who are typically under-represented within existing data sources on the issue of food production and consumption, and whose perspectives may not otherwise come through in the nationally representative survey. This includes those with specific dietary requirements (covering halal, kosher, vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free and sugar free diets), those on low incomes, a range of age groups and urbanity/rurality.

Strand 2 (b): A nationally representative online survey of 2,345 Scottish adults (16+) to gather baseline data on attitudes towards a range of environmental, agricultural and rural community issues. The survey questions were informed by the literature and evidence review, and the in-depth interviews and covered perceptions and priorities towards agriculture and food production, the environment and rural communities as well as priorities for the future funding of agricultural policy.

Strand 3: Two Citizens' Forums, each lasting two days, in a rural (Montrose) and mainly urban (Motherwell) location to deliberate on the topics in scope; to present expert information and views on agricultural, environment and rural community issues in Scotland.

Overall, 49 participants took part in the Forums, at Motherwell and Montrose. The participants were recruited to match the Scottish population profile; thus, constituted a representative "mini-public".

Each Citizens' Forum was a 2-day intensive, residential process dedicating 14.5 hours on discussing and deliberating on the issues. The Citizens' Forums were designed to take participants through a process of learning, developing dialogue and deliberation. To this end:

  • Participants spent most of the time working in small facilitated groups.
  • There was a balance of hearing from and questioning 'experts' and group discussions.
  • Work in plenary throughout the day was used to build the sense of a 'whole room' task and highlight differences and commonalities in the discussions at each table.
  • Each exercise built on the other (both in terms of the learning and the depth of deliberation asked of the participants).

Interpreting the findings

Quantitative data

Quantitative data identifies the prevalence of particular views among the population group and identifies differences in opinion by key demographic variables.

Throughout the report, differences between variables are commented upon only where we are sure these are statistically significant i.e. where we can be 95% certain that they have not occurred by chance.

Where percentages do not sum to 100%, this may be due to rounding, the exclusion of 'don't know' categories, or multiple answers.

Aggregate percentages (e.g. "satisfied/not satisfied") are calculated from the absolute values. Therefore, aggregate percentages may differ from the sum of the individual scores due to rounding of percentage totals. Throughout the report, an asterisk (*) denotes any value of less than half a percent and a dash (-) denotes zero.

Results from online polling conducted at the Citizens' Forums are shown as % and are compared with the survey results to indicate the direction of travel between pre-and-post deliberation preferences on the issues, these results are indicative, and we cannot attribute statistical significance to the values given.

Qualitative data

When considering the findings from the qualitative elements of the research it should be borne in mind that qualitative samples are designed to ensure that a range of different views and experiences is captured. It is not appropriate to draw conclusions from qualitative data about the prevalence of views or experiences among the population group. As such, quantifying language, such as 'all', 'most' or 'a few' is avoided as far as possible when discussing qualitative findings throughout the report.

Report structure

The findings from the various strands of the public attitudes research, including the literature review, qualitative interviews, nationally representative survey and Citizens' Forums, have been thematically grouped using a set of guiding principles that were spontaneously identified by participants at the Citizens' Forums. The principles correspond with the findings from the other strands of the public attitudes research and convey what the public think should underpin future agricultural policy.

Findings from the methodologies employed in the research, including the literature review, qualitative interviews, nationally representative survey, and Citizens' Forums are detailed separately in the annex of the report.

Each methodology report contained in the annex includes a technical note on the methodological approach.


First and foremost, we would like to thank all research participants who have taken part in the interviews, survey, and Citizens' Forums.

We would like to thank Eva Kleinert and Graeme Beale and their colleagues from Scottish Government for their support and guidance throughout the project.

We would also like to thank the Research Advisory Group for their invaluable input to the research:

  • Emma Cooper (Scottish Rural Action)
  • Jenny Brunton (National Farmers Union of Scotland)
  • Eleanor Kay (Scottish Land and Estates)
  • Sandra Marks (Scientific Adviser, Environment, SG)
  • John Brownlee (Policy Adviser, Brexit, SG)
  • Kirsten Beddows (Policy Adviser, Agriculture, SG)
  • Pamela Berry (Rural Economy Policy, SG)

Finally, we would like to thank expert witnesses who contributed to the Citizens' Forums: Davy McCracken (SRUC), Katrin Prager (University of Aberdeen/James Hutton Institute), and David Hopkins (SRUC).



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