Review of the environmental and socio-economic barriers and benefits to organic agriculture in Scotland

Report of the research carried out by Harper Adams University, on behalf of the Scottish Government, into the environmental and socio-economic barriers and benefits to organic agriculture in Scotland.

1. Introduction

1.1. Background

Organic agricultural production has a wide range of potential benefits for the environment, society and the economy. For example, Lobley et al., 2005 & 2009a showed that organic agriculture can provide positive benefits to rural economies in England and Wales through employment. Their research indicated that organic producers are “more likely to be willing to diversify their operations and enter into innovative marketing arrangements in ways which generate more employment overall and a greater proportion of non-family labour on their farms”. A substantial amount of research, particularly from Europe, also indicates that compared to conventional farming, organic farming can have greater biodiversity benefits, although research gaps still exist. Benefits also vary amongst species and between crops. This is possibly a consequence of the small size and isolated context of many organic farms (e.g. Hole et al., 2005; Fuller et al., 2005; Rahmann, 2011; Smith et al., 2011; Tuck et al., 2014). 

Organic production still accounts for only a small percentage (2.1%) of agriculture in Scotland, compared to almost 3.0 per cent in the UK as a whole. National Statistics for Organic Farming in Scotland, show an eighth consecutive fall in the area of organic land in 2016, although this increased by over 1000ha in 2017 to a total land area of 122,660 hectares (Organic Farming in Scotland, 2017 Statistics). Under the Scottish Rural Development Programme, farmers can apply for the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) for support to convert their land to organic.

To help develop future policy and decision-making, the Government require wider environmental and socio-economic evidence, particularly in a Scottish context, of the benefits of organic agriculture compared to conventional agriculture. Wider environmental benefits of organic farming may include improvements in water quality and soil health, and a reduction in soil erosion and contributions to global warming (e.g. Anon, 2004; Shepherd et al., 2003). For example, although pasture (permanent and temporary grassland and rough grazing) makes up 93% of organic land in Scotland (Organic Farming in Scotland statistics, 2017) reviews have highlighted that there is less relevant evidence for these types of habitat to biodiversity (Hole et al., 2005; Smith et al., 2011). Wider socio-economic benefits could include the provision of local organic produce helping to re-connect farmers and consumers and retain money in the local economy (e.g. Lobley et al., 2009b).

Uptake of sustainable farming practices, and organic farming may be constrained by ability and willingness to adopt. A wide range of factors can facilitate or constrain ability to adopt practices for example: education, age, succession status, off farm work, land tenure, business strategies, stage in the family life-cycle, social networks, finances, and management capacity (e.g Ahnstrom et al. 2008; Kabii and Horwitz 2006; Läpple and Kelley, 2010; Lastro-Bravo et al., 2015; Wilson and Hart 2001). Willingness to adopt is where behavioural intentions of an individual are directly related to his/her attitude or beliefs and the ability to act effectively. For example, a farmer’s perception of what others in a community relevant to them think is appropriate behaviour may well affect decisions on uptake (Läpple and Kelley, 2010; Lynne, 1995). 

Lobley et al., 2009a highlighted that the viability of smaller producers in the organic sector in England and Wales depends on mitigating the escalating cost and availability of primary organic inputs such as feed and seed, limiting the concentration of box schemes by supermarket chains and national organic suppliers, as well as facilitating adding value for producers in regions with limited demand for organic food and a shortage of processing capacity. Similar and additional limitations (e.g. knowledge of organic systems, labour requirements, lack of organic land to rent, infrastructure requirements and cost of certification for small scale production) were highlighted by the consultation process involving farmers and growers in the development of the ‘Organic Ambitions’ Scottish Organic Action Plan 2016-2020 (The Scottish Government, 2016). The Scottish Government supported Scotland’s organic industry’s ‘Scottish Organic Forum’ to create an organic action plan for Scotland for the period 2016-2020 that recognises these positive contributions and aims to strengthen and promote Scotland’s organic food and drink supply chain (The Scottish Government 2016). 

The Scottish Government needs to better understand factors which determine public attitudes towards organic produce and factors that influence demand so that it can uphold its commitment to increasing supply and demand of Scottish organic food, using public procurement to drive demand. 

A consultation of Scottish consumers’ attitudes towards organic produce in the development of the Scottish Organic Action Plan 2016-2020 (The Scottish Government, 2016) highlighted barriers (e.g. cost, availability) to consumption and potential solutions (e.g. better ranges, lower prices) which included increasing public awareness of the benefits of organic farming. Since this consultation, the Soil Association Scotland (2019) has suggested that the increase in the awareness of the benefits of organic farming through the Scottish Organic Action Plan has contributed to a rise in interest for organic produce by consumers. In 2018, the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report (Soil Association, 2018), highlighted that sales of organic food in Scotland grew by 19.4 per cent in 2017, and accounted for 6.5 per cent of UK sales. When this report was released, the Soil Association Scotland also reported that 100 per cent of Scottish independent retailers expected organic sales to maintain or increase in 2018 (Soil Association Scotland, 2019). 

Maintaining and building on public awareness initiatives to highlight the benefits of organic farming may therefore be one way to continue to increase public demand for Scottish organic produce.

Organic farming has the potential to fit with and contribute to a wider range of environmental and socio-economic goals within Scottish policy, for example:

  • To deliver 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity, 2013
  • Contribute to Scotland’s climate change targets by reducing greenhouse emissions from agriculture - Climate Change (Scotland) Act, 2009
  • Contribute to the Scottish Government’s commitment to promoting the sustainable economic growth of the food and drink industry, and ensure that food is nutritious, fresh and environmentally sustainable - Recipe for Success: Scotland’s National Food and Drink Policy – becoming a Good Food Nation, 2014.

1.2. Aims and objectives

The aim of this project was to identify the socio-economic and environmental benefits and impacts of organic agriculture versus conventional farming systems in Scotland, including what factors are influencing or driving uptake of organic production and consumer demand for organic produce.

The research objectives for this project were as follows:

a) Undertake a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of the existing evidence base on environmental and socio-economic impacts of organic production systems, focusing on evidence from, or of demonstrable relevance to, Scotland. 

b) Conduct a comparative SWOT analysis on Scottish organic and conventional farming systems.

c) aIdentify and assess the relative importance of factors which i) determine public attitudes and behaviours towards organic produce, and ii) influence consumer demand, busing the results to inform recommendations for ways to increase consumption of Scottish organic produce.

d) aIdentify, and where possible, quantify, factors contributing to the year-on-year decline in the percentage of Scotland’s land certified as organic and bmake recommendations for potential ways to reverse this decline.

In order to address these objectives, the project was carried out in four stages: 

Stage 1: 
A desk review of the existing research evidence relating to the environmental and socio-economic benefits and impacts of organic agriculture in Scotland in order to identify trends and gaps in existing research knowledge. (Objective a)

Stage 2: 
An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) facting organic farming in Scotland. The findings of the REA were combined with previous organic farming consultations of farmers, growers and consumers to inform this process. (objectives b, ca and da)

Stage 3: 
Gather stakeholder opinion on the areas for future prioritisation for the organic sector in Scotland. The areas identified in the SWOT analysis were prioritised for importance by members of the Scottish Organic Forum, together with some of their members and contacts. A stakeholder workshop was held to identify potential actions to address these priorities. (objectives cb and db)

Review team

Nicola Randall1, Luke Briggs1, Abigail Graceson1, Katy James1, Carla Barlagne2, Gill Banks3 Laure Kuhfuss3

1Centre for Evidence-Based Agriculture, Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire, TF10 8NB

2James Hutton Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen, AB15 8QH

3James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee, DD2 5DA



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