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Publication - Research and analysis

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

Published: 17 Jun 2019
Directorate:
Agriculture and Rural Delivery Directorate
ISBN:
9781787819351

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

167 page PDF

2.5 MB

167 page PDF

2.5 MB

Contents
Citizens' forums, and attitudes to agriculture, environment and rural priorities: research report
Advancing environmental protection

167 page PDF

2.5 MB

Advancing environmental protection

Support for advancing environmental protection as part of future agri-policy was strengthened through the provision of information on the issue and was identified as a principle which should guide the design of future policy.

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.

Perceptions of environmental issues

Overall there were mixed results in relation to the relationship between farming and the environment.

  • 45% agreed that Scottish farming could do more to mitigate any negative impacts of farming on climate change
  • 28% agreed that Scottish farming does not do enough to protect the natural environment and encourage biodiversity; an equal proportion (28%) disagreed with this statement

Figure 4.1: Perceptions of environmental issues

Figure 4.1: Perceptions of environmental issues

These results indicate that the linkages between agriculture and the environment are not prima facie clear to respondents to the survey. It should be noted at the outset that the agricultural sector contributes to protecting and conserving the environment through greening provisions which are a prerequisite of the basic support payment. Furthermore, the sector has decreased emissions by 25.8% between 1990 and 2015[11]; and contributes to the decarbonisation of Scotland's energy sector through the production of renewable energy.

The linkages between farming and the natural environment were sharper for those in rural areas compared with overall: those in remote rural areas were more likely than overall to strongly agree that Scottish farming could do more to mitigate any negative impacts of farming on climate change (19% compared with 13%); moreover, those in remote rural areas were more likely than overall to strongly agree that Scottish farming does not do enough to protect the natural environment and encourage biodiversity (11% compared with 7%).

The lack of initial awareness of the environment was also found in the qualitative in-depth interviews, and among the three areas of the CAP, the environment was less commonly discussed in the research.

Among those who mentioned environmental issues, there was specific discussion of the issue of methane gases released by animals in the air, which was seen to be a contributing factor to climate change, but also the vast use of land assets, and water and air pollution caused by animal farming. There was the view that the vast consumer demand for meat, particularly red meat by fast food chains, had resulted in vast arrays of farmland being used to rear cows instead of growing crops and had also led to deforestation by placing competing demands on Scottish green land. However, with 86% of Scotland deemed as a Less Favoured Area, vast parts of Scotland only allow for rearing sheep and cattle on rough grazing as the quality of land is not sufficient to grow crops.

For those for whom the environment was important there was a deep knowledge of the subject and a view that it should be higher on the agenda particularly as it is intertwined with both agriculture and rural development.

"Environmental issues should be the top concern for agriculture" (Interview participant)

To illustrate the relationship between these elements, participants described a number of processes. For instance, there was mention of how animals release methane gases in the air affecting air quality, and climate change; there is also the issue of farming waste and chemicals running into fresh water supplies affecting water quality. Climate change is in turn having an impact on the weather conditions which are affecting food harvests. There was also specific mention of species like bees and bats that are important as pollinators that fertilise plants.

Spontaneous discussion of the issue of climate change in the research is pertinent given that the Scottish Government is proposing net zero greenhouse gas emission zone by 2045 in the Climate Change Bill.

When thinking about the responsibility for protecting the environment, the issue of pollution from farms was commonly discussed. There were mixed attitudes regarding this issue, while some felt that farmers should take measures to minimise pollution, others argued that pollution was inevitable from farms, and that the focus should be oriented towards supermarkets and the industrial processes used by food manufacturers.

"Farming has been done for thousands of years, global warming is an issue of the last 100-150 years, to blame farming is to scapegoat the issue" (Interview participant)

"Climate change is a global problem and will drastically change agriculture, but who makes policy on that, who regulates that?" (Interview participant)

Plastic packaging of food produce was also spontaneously raised by participants as an environmental concern. It was felt that supermarkets and food manufacturers package almost all items in plastics, and that they should be encouraged to adopt alternatives such as paper bags and reinforced cardboard for packaging fruit and vegetables.

"I try to buy loose vegetables, but a bag of three peppers is cheaper than the loose single peppers" (Interview participant)

While participants who were environmentally conscious cited measures that they were personally adopting to protect the environment such as reducing their meat intake, purchasing loose unpackaged food and recycling, overall, there was a perception that supermarkets, food manufacturers and farmers were responsible for taking steps to protect the environment.

Figure 4.2: Is it the responsibility of the farming sector to do more to protect and conserve the environment.

Figure 4.2: Is it the responsibility of the farming sector to do more to protect and conserve the environment.

The issue of responsibility was further explored at the Citizens' Forums, more specifically participants were invited to consider on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 indicates strongly disagree and 10 indicates strongly agree) whether or not it is the responsibility of the farming sector to do more to protect and conserve the environment. The survey on the issue was preceded by a presentation covering the impact of farming on the environment by Davy McCracken, Professor of Agricultural Ecology at Scotland's Rural College. The presentation addressed the impact of farming on biodiversity, landscape, the bird population and water quality. The average results in urban Motherwell and rural Montrose both showed a slight leaning towards agreeing with the statement. In Motherwell, the results concentrating around the average result of 6.3. In Montrose however, despite a similar overall result of 6.7, there was a larger spread of votes across the scale with a significant amassing of participants saying they strongly agree that the farming sector needs to do more to protect and conserve the environment.

Participants agreed that farmers needed to do more to protect the environment because it is "in their own interests", its their "bread and butter", but also because "farmers are custodians of the countryside," "they work the land therefore it is their responsibility" and they have a "responsibility not to be reckless".

On the other hand, some participants suggested farmers "need returns first" and "need to be cost effective - operating like a business." Environmental protection therefore is "costing farmers because Scottish government policy has higher climate targets," and that "many demands of farmers means it is complicated." They also said that, "the market dictates practices" especially if there is "wider peer pressure from the sector and consumers" in favour of environmentally friendly products.

Participants said that a reason farmers should not be required to do more to protect the environment because it is "everyone's responsibility" which requires "collective change (e.g. industry)."

The Citizens' Forum was then asked about the extent to which the farming sector needs to do more to protect and conserve individual elements of the environment including soil quality, air quality, water quality, biodiversity and reductions in carbon dioxide. This line of questioning was to measure if there was variance in the different aspects of the environment that the farming sector was perceived to be more responsible for protecting and conserving.

Figure 4.3: Is it the responsibility of the farming sector to do more to protect and conserve the environment.

Figure 4.3: Is it the responsibility of the farming sector to do more to protect and conserve the environment.

The participants in Montrose consistently agreed or strongly agreed more than those in Motherwell with the need for farmers to do more to protect and conserve soil, air and water quality, biodiversity and reductions in carbon dioxide. While participants from both locations agreed with the statement that "the farming sector should do more to protect and conserve soil quality", Montrose participants more strongly agreed (8.3) than in Motherwell (6.3) where there was a wider spread of votes. The main reasons given here related to the fact that maintaining the quality of the land itself is fundamentally the responsibility of those who are using it for their business and thus a specific responsibility of the farming sector.

With regards to air quality, Montrose participants agreed with the statement that "the farming sector needs to do more to protect and conserve air quality" (5.8), while those in Motherwell disagreed (4.1). In this case, Montrose participants were more widely spread across the spectrum whereas Motherwell participants clustered around disagreeing. The key reasons given for disagreeing were that this was a wider societal problem and that the farming sector did not have a specific responsibility for it, given that the impacts on air quality from this sector were not particularly related to specific farming practices. While there was a perception that the relationship between farming and air quality was not strong, the wider literature suggests that there are localised impacts of farming on air quality such as greenhouse gases, odours from slurry and ammonia emissions.

Montrose participants strongly agreed (7.8) that the farming sector needs to do more to protect and conserve water quality, whereas in Motherwell participants were more evenly split (5.2). Key reasons given in Montrose for prioritising this aspect of environmental protection related to potential for the run-off of fertilizer and other chemicals and soil from fields to damage the quality of local water courses. This may have been prioritised more highly in Montrose as, being a relatively rural environment, participants had seen more directly the impacts when environmental protection measures on farms had not maintained high standards.

Both locations agreed that farming sector should do more to protect and conserve biodiversity , although Montrose (7.4) was far stronger in agreement than in Motherwell (6.3) where the spread of votes was more even. Again the priority given to this related to the ability of the farming sector to make a direct contribution because of their direct control of how the land they farmed was used. As noted in many of the discussions, the growth of more intensive farming practices has had a direct impact on biodiversity by reducing the range of habitats as more land was cultivated. As the impacts of this are becoming more widely understood there is a corresponding responsibility on the sector to ensure that their land management practices adapt to rectify this.

Montrose participants agreed that the farming sector should do more towards reductions in CO2 (6.4) while participants in Motherwell were more undecided (5.1). Again this was generally seen as a wider societal issue that all people and industries had a responsibility to address. Where people did give a specific responsibility to the farming sector reasons tended to focus on the impacts created by transporting produce (ie food miles) and the methane produced by livestock farming (although participants' acknowledged that there was little that could be done to reduce this other than stop rearing animals for food).

This view is similar to that advanced by the Scottish Government's "farming for a better climate" policy which recognises that greenhouse gas emissions are inherent in food production but seeks to work with farmers to find practical ways to adapt farming practices in line with actions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The issue of the whether the farming sector needs to do more to protect and conserve the environment was explored at various stages of the research, including initially at the national survey, and then twice over the course of the deliberative Forums. The results indicate that over the course of the research there is a higher level of agreement that the farming sector should do more on the issue of the environment.

While the comparisons are not statistically significant, the results at the two stages of the Forums do indicate a strengthened opinion on the issue as a result of the deliberative engagement.

Table 4.1 . Change in views on whether the farming sector should do more to protect and conserve the environment

Strongly agree % Tend to agree % Tend to disagree % Strongly disagree % Don't know %
Survey 7 19 19 7 22
1st survey at Forums 4 18 29 2 24
After 2 days deliberation 8 31 14 8 12

While the research focused on the relationship of farming and the environment, data from the Scottish Household Survey shows that the public recognise that they have a role to play in terms of environmental issues. Pertinently, the household survey identifies that around two-thirds[12] (67%) disagree with the statement that "It's not worth me doing things to protect the environment if others don't do the same".

The survey research explored public perceptions on a number of different environmental issues. Almost all (90%) agreed that without a wide variety of plants and animals, the environment would worsen; and a majority agreed that the quality of drinking water in Scotland is greater than in other parts of the UK.

Figure 4.4: Public perceptions on different environmental issues

Figure 4.4: Public perceptions on different environmental issues

Agreement on the statement regarding forest space is pertinent given the increase in forest space in the last 25 years - Scotland's Forestry Strategy indicates that in the past 100 years forest space has increased from 5% to 18.5%[13]. Those aged 65 and over were more likely than overall to disagree with the statement (13% compared with 8%). These results show that the concerted efforts to sustainably manage forest space and expand forest space have not resonated in public knowledge of the issue. A draft strategy is being prepared on the issue of forestry and land management which seeks to increase the contribution of forests and woodlands to Scotland's sustainable and inclusive growth ambitions, protect and enhance Scotland's natural assets and help to improve the health and wellbeing of the Scottish public.

A similar pattern is observed on the issue of air pollution and climate change, whereby high levels of agreement with the statement indicate that the issue of air pollution may be conflated with greenhouse gases among the public.

There were a number of notable variations in public perceptions of environmental issues.

Those in accessible rural locations were more likely than those in large urban areas to strongly agree that without a wide variety of plants and animals, the environment will worsen (63% compared with 54%). These findings are consistent with the earlier section on agriculture and the environment and the higher levels of agreement found on the issue of climate change and biodiversity among those in rural areas.

There were higher levels of agreement that the quality of drinking water in Scotland is greater than in other parts of the UK in urban areas comparative to rural areas, which may be related to the higher prevalence of private water supplies in rural locations (56% in large urban areas strongly agree; 57% in other urban areas; 66% in accessible small towns; 55% in remote small towns compared with 47% in accessible rural; and 39% in remote rural.

Priorities for future environmental policy

The top three priorities for environmental policy should 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%).

Figure 4.5: Priorities for future environmental policy

Figure 4.5: Priorities for future environmental policy

There were differences by age in terms of the issues that respondents wanted the government to focus on.

Those aged 65+ were more likely than younger age groups to want government to prioritise investing in better flood prevention and management, as well as having a full and clear policy on soil management. In contrast, those aged 35 and under, were more likely than older age groups to want government to focus on increasing the variety of plant and animal life, and the amount of forest space, which is consistent with the environmental priorities found among young people throughout the survey.

While only a third of the sample (36%) prioritised having a full and clear policy on soil management, the issue of soil governance has been raised in the literature on the issue. Soil quality is important for the environment, biodiversity, agriculture and forestry[14]. However, at present soil protection policy is fragmented to individual aspects of policy, and there is a suggestion that these elements need to be consolidated through a comprehensive policy on soil protection particularly given the cross-cutting nature of the issues.

Table 4.2: Priorities for the future of the environment by age.

Overall % Under 35 % 35-44 % 45-54 % 55-64 % 65+ %
Invest in better flood prevention and management 59 52 56 58 63 68
Increase the variety of plant and animal life 56 61 61 53 52 49
Set stricter targets for improving air quality 55 61 54 53 52 52
Increase the amount of forest space 54 59 55 53 52 49
Have a full and clear policy on soil management 36 33 34 34 39 43
Invest in improving the quality of drinking water 20 17 21 24 20 17

Among qualitative interview participants there was a view that environmental protections should underpin future agriculture and rural development policy by protecting biodiversity, reducing pollution, using alternative energy resources in the manufacturing of food, and protecting green spaces, rural landscapes and rivers.

Participants expressed the view that food production will have to change to adapt to climate change - therefore, a commitment to protect the environment should underpin future policy. This would encompass reducing overall meat production, but also placing an emphasis on the wider industrial food manufacturing processes and reducing plastic packaging of food items. It was felt that future policy should be informed by some long-term forecasting of trends in climate change.

"The Scottish Government should encourage environmental policies and look at recyclable materials to pack food" (Interview participant)

"We need to think about endangered species, and the staples of food production and if these are sustainable or not and if we need to adapt our diets" (Interview participant)

Points of consideration:

  • The linkages between agriculture and the environment, and more generally environmental consciousness can be increased through the provision of information on potential positive and negative links between farming and the environment; future policy should recognise and promote the interrelationship between agriculture and the environment;
  • Future policy can be guided by environmental targets set by the Government e.g. in terms of climate change, and reducing emissions, as part of the integration of environmental policy. The research shows that there is support for advancing environmental protection, and for this to have a key role in future agriculture and rural development policy;
  • While there is an acknowledgment that farmers as land managers have a responsibility to increase the resilience of the environment and enhance the function of ecosystems, there is a recognition among participants that there is a collective responsibility among consumers, and the wider food processing and manufacturing industry in terms of advancing environmental goals;
  • There should also be wider public recognition of how much environmental protections farmers already do, and where improvements can be made.

Contact

Email: socialresearch@scotland.gsi.gov.uk