Environment, natural resources and agriculture research: strategy 2022 to 2027

We fund a multi-million pound portfolio of research on the environment, natural resources and agriculture. This strategy outlines our vision, priorities and mechanisms for funding the next cycle of research which starts in 2022.

This document is part of a collection

Annex A: Research Themes and Topics

Theme A: Plant and Animal Health

High quality agricultural crops and livestock underpin Scotland's growing food sector and our ambition to be a Good Food Nation, with products consumed in Scotland, the UK and exported that are known for their provenance and quality. Research and development are required to provide confidence against a background of uncertainty generated by climate change, shifting world trade patterns and the spread of diseases and pests.

Diseases of plants and animals cause direct production losses which reduce the quality of products, the viability of businesses and increase environmental burden through increased resource use. Our policies, policy delivery partners and producers need evidence, tools and resources to detect, prevent and control diseases and pests. Our objective is to protect our primary production systems and ensure that they are as economically and environmentally efficient as possible.

The threats of diseases and pests come from a range of sources: some are endemic in Scotland and currently constrain production; others may arrive with products that are traded internationally. They include pests and diseases that move between hosts such as between wildlife and livestock, between imported products and the natural environment, or between livestock, the environment and people. Maintaining the skills, expertise and capability to detect and deal with the endemic diseases, the 'exotic' threats and zoonotic infections, is a core function of our research.

A1. Plant Disease

Plants sustain life, mitigate climate change, enrich landscapes and underpin our rural industries. However, they are subject to an ever-increasing range of pest and disease threats, due primarily to trade and travel globalisation and the effects of climate change.

For example, the bacterial pathogen, Xylella, has over 500 host species, many of which are found across Scotland. Legislative controls would require destruction of host species up to 5km from the site of an infected plant. A Scottish outbreak could therefore devastate our natural environment.

Another pest, Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN), causes significant yield losses but, more importantly, the amount of infested agricultural land increases every year. If the loss of land continues at the current rate, our £100 million seed potato industry will be in jeopardy in the next 30 years.

The Scottish Plant Health Strategy aims to work collectively with stakeholders to minimise the impact of plant pests and diseases and will be revised in 2021. With an evolving landscape, policy decisions need to be underpinned by scientific evidence in order to best support Scotland's rural industries, the environment and our biodiversity. More than ever, behavioural change tools are required to support industry changes that will help safeguard Scotland's future plant health resilience.

Working collaboratively across science, industry and policy, we have the potential to reduce the burden of detrimental impacts from pests and diseases to safeguard our environment and economy, and improve our plant health resilience.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Understand pest and disease infection routes and plant resistance mechanisms in order to develop effective and sustainable control strategies, including integrated pest management strategies.
  • Identify key trade risks and potential solutions to prevent introduction of nonindigenous pests and diseases.
  • Support development of plant disease diagnoses to allow rapid identification of infected plants, particularly at points of entry and in the field.
  • Model the impacts of climate change to inform policy decisions aimed at responding to and mitigating future plant health threats.
  • Engage with stakeholders to ensure a joined-up approach to our evidence needs.

Future of Scottish Agriculture discussion document, Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, Scottish Plant Health Strategy, Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme Action Plan, Environment Strategy, Defra Animal and Plant Health Agency, bacterial disease programme led by UKRI-BBSRC, AHDB research programme, Euphresco research.

A2. Animal disease

This topic includes diseases that affect livestock, principally cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, and depending on circumstances it may extend to include diseases of other animals (e.g. equines, honey bees, camelids and cervids). Whilst the majority of the research will be on non-notifiable endemic disease (research on notifiable diseases is funded elsewhere), there is a some need to explore the specific impacts of notifiable disease threats in Scotland. It covers the prevention, detection, and control of animal disease, from both existing and emerging diseases. The protection of public health through a One Health approach – including tackling zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance – is also a priority.

Drivers for this work include the SG's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (currently under review), the Scotland One Health National Antimicrobial Resistance Action Plan (SOHNAAP) (in preparation) and the new EU Animal Health Regulation (Scotland will be broadly aligned to this). Future changes in agricultural and rural support mechanisms, the economic effects of EU exit and new trade deals will also mean changes in the livestock sector in Scotland. Animal health controls will need to address such change, and improved data systems such as ScotEID, the Scottish multispecies livestock database, will be increasingly important. Novel disease control programmes may be needed, requiring evidence to help design these, monitor progress and drive behaviour change in the livestock sector.

Scientific evidence is developed and used to improve disease prevention, surveillance and control systems in order to reduce the impacts of animal disease upon the productivity and biological efficiency of the livestock sectors in Scotland.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Inform improvements in surveillance policy so that disease threats and resistance to treatments are detected early.
  • Provide robust scientific evidence to inform contingency plans for disease threats and responses.
  • Develop diagnostics & vaccines for the detection and control of endemic and new and emerging infections, this requires understanding of disease mechanisms and a pathway to deployment.
  • Develop data resources to inform disease prevention and control which are reactive and accessible to policy makers, research groups and collaborators. Based on core datasets collected by ScotEID and Scottish Government together with data from other parts of the UK.

Links to other research topics on animal welfare, plant health, livestock improvement, food supply and security, food and drink improvements, diet, climate change, agricultural GHGs, land use. Key partnerships are with Defra Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and contracted projects, with UKRI-BBSRC programmes and Institutes and with EU research programmes.

A3. Animal welfare

This topic includes the welfare of livestock, companion animals and of wildlife. The importance of animal welfare and protection in Scotland is underlined by new powers established by Scottish Ministers under the recent Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) Bill, and the creation of the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission which will focus on protecting the welfare of wild and companion animals. The current Animal Health and Welfare Strategy is also under review, and may lead to the formation of a new Scottish Veterinary Service combining regulatory and enforcement roles in the sectors.

These changes in legislation and strategy, the work of the new Commission, and ongoing changes in livestock production coupled with public concern about welfare of animals in agricultural systems will generate demands for research into veterinary, legal and ethical issues. Unforeseen research needs are also likely to stem from EU Exit, international trade deals, new agricultural support mechanisms, climate change and the emerging "One Welfare" initiative.

Animals in Scotland have the highest possible standards of welfare, with legislation, guidance and advice to Ministers, animal keepers and the public based on evidence derived from high quality science.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Develop methods to assess welfare, improve animal husbandry and reduce the use of painful procedures in sustainable farming systems.
  • Inform policy responses to livestock welfare issues that arise from EU exit and support commitments made to improving the welfare of laying hens.
  • Understand how to influence the behaviour of those working with animals to maximise uptake of measures to improve health and welfare standards of livestock, pets and exotic species.

Links to other research topics on animal disease, livestock improvement, food supply and security, food and drink improvements, biodiversity, behaviour change. Key partnerships with Defra Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and contracted projects, with UKRI-BBSRC programmes and institutes and with EU programmes.

Theme B: Sustainable Food System and Supply

This theme brings together research on sustainable food production from domestic agriculture through to sustainable and secure supplies of food, as well as supporting a safe and healthy diet. It will provide elements of research relevant right through from farm to fork in order to contribute to the economy, people's livelihoods and the health of the nation.

One of the primary focuses of the research is in developing resilient, high-quality crop, livestock and food and drink industries that capture market value and contribute to Scotland's economy. There is also a focus on improving agricultural practices to develop a resilient, productive sector that is abreast of transformative opportunities. In order for the research to have impact, ultimately it must all be positioned in a way to benefit the industry.

Particular connections will exist between the crop and livestock improvements research in this theme and the plant and animal disease research. Any research identifying improvements will also have potentially beneficial knock-on effects for climate change and other environmental issues (Themes C and D). As agriculture is such a significant contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs), there should also be clear links demonstrating and quantifying the potential emissions and land use savings associated with the research.

B1. Crop improvement

There are many challenges affecting the sustainability of crop production in Scotland including climate change, declining soil health, loss of key agro-chemicals and pest and disease threats. However, with a growing global population and environmental challenges to consider, there is an immediate need to produce more food on less land, with less water and with lower environmental impacts. As we go forward, we increasingly need our crops to be resilient, nutritious, high yielding, environmentally-friendly and competitive in global markets.

Cutting-edge research in this area will help safeguard rural industries by supporting farmers to adapt to, and mitigate, the trade and production challenges that lie ahead in order to thrive as outlined in the Future of Scottish Agriculture policy document. This work will include the potato, barley and soft fruit crops that are traditionally important in Scotland, as well as new, emerging crops.

To create resilient, sustainable, high quality crop production systems that support the rural economy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, food security and the circular economy.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Support innovative crop improvement research, including crop breeding and fasttrack selection of desirable traits, to facilitate high quality crop production.
  • Support farmers to adapt to future trade and production challenges so that they can continue to produce quality crops as part of a thriving rural economy.
  • Ensure scientific evidence underpins policy decisions to improve and support the crop production sector and our rural economy.
  • Maintain collaborative approach across policy and scientific areas dealing with the challenges of climate change, food security, plant health, and the circular economy to best support continuation of a strong crop production sector.

Future of Scottish Agriculture Discussion Document, Scottish Plant Health Strategy, Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme Action Plan, Scottish Environment Strategy, UKRI-BBSRC’s bacterial disease programme, AHDB and Defra research programmes.

B2. Livestock improvement

The livestock improvement theme will focus on the major livestock species that contribute to Scotland's primary production sector and its Good Food Nation ambitions – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs. The sector has economic value as an employer and a supplier to our food sector, is also part of our culture and heritage, and interacts with biodiversity and the wider environment. We need to improve our livestock farming to enhance profitability and sustainability, with a direct focus on outputs that contribute to Scotland's climate targets and support biodiversity.

Research needs include the genetic improvement and conservation of genetic diversity in livestock, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient use of food/feed, and environmentally sustainable livestock systems which also support biodiversity. Other needs include understanding the drivers of, and barriers to, behaviour change in businesses to inform policy decisions on the future of rural and agricultural support mechanisms.

SG aims to support digital approaches across the livestock sector, where the use of data and digital transactions is expanding rapidly. Many thousands of small businesses could use their own data to drive productivity and efficiency, and research is needed to inform policies and to drive and support this change. Scotland is well-placed to advance this area because SG has invested in a multi-species livestock database, the ScotEID system, which can both underpin research and assist delivery of research outputs.

The diversity of business types and the connections between players in the livestock supply chain (breeders, finishers, marts and abattoirs) must be taken account of in research design and delivery throughout this topic in order to maximise the impact of research outputs.

Research outputs that inform and drive a change in policies, businesses and the supply chain towards sustainability, productivity and GHG reduction.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Build a body of evidence, expertise and knowledge to inform development and implementation of livestock improvement policies that mitigate climate change and enhance biodiversity.
  • Develop tools, innovations and methods that can be taken up by livestock businesses that enhance economic performance and deliver against sustainability targets.
  • Explore the benefits of whole chain approaches to the use of data in the livestock supply chain.

Links to other areas of the strategy including: animal disease; animal welfare; improving agricultural practice; land use; agricultural GHGs; food supply and security; biodiversity; rural economy; knowledge economy.

B3. Improving agricultural practice

This research topic will be key to informing work on the future of food and farming in Scotland, post-2024 farming support and the uptake of measures, policies and practices required to meet policy goals, as well as developing the underlying resilience of the sector. Departure from the EU, and therefore Common Agricultural Policy, in conjunction with the increased focus on the climate emergency will lead to substantial changes in agricultural subsidy system and policy.

Positively influencing farmer behaviour is a long-standing issue with a wide range of examples in the industry of challenges around the uptake of best, and even basic, practice. In order to deliver policy outcomes in the most effective way it is essential for the Scottish Government to understand the barriers to uptake of basic and best practice, new technology and how to develop policy to better incentivise uptake.

Better uptake of basic and best practice by farmers leading to a more productive and less vulnerable sector overall.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Develop approaches to influence farmer behaviour and effect change on the ground with respect to soils, land management, air quality, flood prevention and climate change.
  • Understand the barriers to uptake of basic and best practice in Scottish agriculture.
  • Understand and quantify where possible the likely scale of costs and benefits of the approaches identified.

Behavioural change is an area cutting across nearly every policy area of interest identified in the research portfolio. It is essential that this work package operates in conjunction with these other areas to identify and quantify specific cost-effective techniques for increasing the uptake to benefit all areas of agriculture.

B4. Food supply and security

The purpose of this research topic is to equip policy makers with the knowledge to ensure that domestic food production in Scotland can fulfil the goals of providing good, high-value jobs domestically, and contribute to a healthy Scottish diet and the circular economy. Ensuring that we effectively leverage new and existing technology and data to maximise our capacity to produce and add value is a key concern here.

To identify opportunities for change to Scotland’s food supply chains to meet the nation’s needs and to maximise the efficiency, value, sustainability and resilience of our food supply.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Produce a detailed set of scenarios and recommendations about the scope and potential value for increasing soft fruit and vegetable production in Scotland, drawing on international examples and the scope for emerging and current technology to maximise our capacity and minimise waste.
  • Research the most effective support models for encouraging innovation within a high-value, high-productivity food sector.
  • Review the Scottish supply chain and protein bioeconomy, exploring where supply chain investment could improve the resilience and reduce the fragility of primary production sectors in relation to external shock.
  • Review and assess what scope there is to build food security within Scotland and increase capacity to respond to food insecurity.

Many Scottish organisations contribute to understanding the food system; the UKRIBBSRC- led Transforming Food Production and Global Food Security programmes will be among the external partners.

B5. Food and Drink Improvement

This topic will support the greater understanding of Scotland's food and drink industries, identify opportunities to expand and capture greater market value, as well as consider the interactions with and impacts upon wider Scottish Government objectives such as the climate change emergency and inclusive growth.


  • Evidence on how to develop both existing and new export markets, and to support the development of new brands.
  • Innovations which improve the sustainability of food processing and distribution.
  • Business models which promote collaboration between farmers, growers and other workers in order to maximise the circulation of value within the food system.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Analyse potential and high-return opportunities in order to identify the barriers and limitations which food products face in new markets, with an emphasis on building capacity to add greater value to our exports and accessing new markets via technological innovation.
  • Identify points within key Scottish food and drink supply chains where bottlenecks exist and/or value opportunities are missed or where there are opportunities to recapture value.
  • Review the scope for reducing the environmental impact of Scotland’s food and drink products, including the processes and materials used, to reduce waste, improve against wider-environmental goals and support the Scotland brand.
  • Collect baseline and monitoring data in order to benchmark food and drink processors on non-traditional metrics (i.e. energy use, GHG emissions).
  • Review the pros and cons of higher value (i.e. PGI, PDO, organic) status for Scottish products.

Links to other research topics on food safety, waste and circular economy, and rural economy.

B6. Diet & Food Safety

This topic will support Scottish Government's commitment to the concept of Scotland as a 'Good Food Nation', where our population takes pride and pleasure in, and benefits from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day.

The importance of a safe, healthy, nutritious and environmentally sustainable food and drink environment in Scotland is a critical part of our culture and is fundamental to our economic growth and public health. It is vital that actions support achievement of the Scottish Dietary Goals and maintain a focus on reducing health inequalities in the population.


  • Interventions which reduce food-borne disease and health risks.
  • Innovations which improve the traceability of food and feed origins.
  • Approaches to persuade consumers improve their diet and food safety.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Build understanding on the sources and epidemiology of foodborne disease in Scotland to identify interventions and reduce foodborne disease.
  • Develop state-of-the-art scientific methods to identify and tackle emerging microbiological, chemical and nutrient risks in food for Scottish consumers and businesses.
  • Establish an understanding of the flow of bacterial antimicrobial resistance (AMR) genes through soil, animals and humans.
  • Develop methodologies and build data that can identify and track the origin of Scottish food products.
  • Develop work on behaviour change interventions so that we can understand how to influence consumers to make long-term changes with respect to their diet and food safety and that reduce or minimise health inequalities.
  • Research protein alternatives (e.g. legumes), vegetable and fruit production that can be reared and/or grown in Scotland, to support climate change targets and sustainability at reduced costs to consumers.

Links to research topics on rural economy, agricultural practice, crop improvement.

Theme C: Human impacts on the Environment

This Theme brings together research on activities that have a direct environmental impact including on the climate, land use and resource use. Research on agricultural greenhouse gases, circular economy, land use and climate change, are all needed to inform the transition to net zero by 2045 and the range of policies that will be required to get us there. Large-scale, coordinated changes to our economy, agricultural and land use practices are required to reduce our impact on the environment and to make the most of the economic and social opportunities of this transition.

As well as looking at the high-level, long-term strategic direction, this research theme looks at the individual and community level to understand how people, families, organisations and businesses can each best be supported to reduce their environmental impact. There is a focus on understanding individual behaviours and consumption practices and encouraging more sustainable business models, land uses and behaviours. It is anticipated that these behavioural changes will both reduce environmental impact but could also improve individual wellbeing. This is particularly the case in the research into use of outdoors and greenspace which aims to get more people visiting and benefiting from nature.

This theme is highly crosscutting with particular connections to research on Natural Resources, Food system, and Rural Futures.

C1. Climate Change

The Climate Change Act 2019 set new targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. These targets, which apply annually from now through to Net Zero in 2045, are among the most demanding in the world. This reflects both the severity of the challenge but also our view that Scotland has the right range of assets to make a success of the transition to Net Zero. We will publish an update to our Climate Change Plan in December 2020. This document will set out across all sectors of the economy how we intend to meet our emissions reduction goals, consistent with Net Zero, through to 2032.

We need an evidence process that supports an effective policy response, across all sectors, to the ongoing challenges of our Net Zero goal. It needs to support both long run and responsive decisions on our use of resources and help us to design policies where we make the most of potential co-benefits and opportunities for growth in green jobs to support our communities.

To achieve this we aim to:

Achieving our Net Zero target will require substantial effort across all sectors and a wide range of supporting policy measures. We expect to work with other funders especially in this area. Some specific areas of focus include (but are not limited to):

  • Understanding the impact of land-use change and land management: on emissions and carbon sequestration; on risk and resilience; and, on our ability to respond and adapt to climate change.
  • Technical and economic analysis to inform the challenge of decarbonising food production.
  • Approaches to develop and review a national Nitrogen Balance Sheet.
  • Analysis of the economic impacts of policy options, for example around the potential employment and supply chain benefits of different technology pathways.
  • Research into the social aspects of climate change policy, including public attitudes, behaviour change, and equity and social justice.
  • Improving the evidence base to support policies to decarbonise heat and transport.

Research on climate change must connect with a range of other research on our land use and natural assets. This includes biodiversity, circular economy, rural economy, land-use, agriculture, natural capital, public health, flooding and soils.

C2. Agricultural GHGs

This research topic will support the development of new options for: reducing emissions, improvements to the design and implementation of existing GHG reduction measures (including incentivising behavioural change); how best to monitor these; and, increasing our capacity to model the emissions from the beef, sheep and dairy sectors under a range of land use and farming scenarios.

This work will be key to informing work on the future of food and farming in Scotland, post-2024 farming support and the broader measures required to meet the agriculture GHG targets in the forthcoming Climate Change Plan. The Scottish Government firmly believe that agriculture has a key role to play in being part of Scotland's solution to meeting our Net Zero target.


  • Agriculture plays its full role in tackling the global climate emergency and limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C; i.e. meets each of its envelopes under the Climate Change Plan.
  • We are responsible global citizens with a sustainable international footprint; i.e. we do not contribute to the global climate emergency by offshoring emissions.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Produce science-based and quantified estimates of the mitigation potential of new and existing measures to reduce emissions from agricultural GHG’s.
  • Understand the extent to which these measures would be captured and reflected in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory and develop approaches to incorporate those that are not.
  • Develop workable, practical approaches to increase uptake of basic and best practice and influence future behavioural change.
  • Compare Scottish agricultural emissions internationally at a sectoral, farm and unit level in order to understand what the impact of increased imports could be.
  • Measure and monitor our progress and performance over time at appropriate levels, such as benchmarked farm or commodity levels.

This topic is connected to other research topics on Animal Disease, Livestock Improvement, Improving Agricultural Practice, Air Quality and Climate Change. All actions under those topics have the potential to impact agricultural emissions so it is essential that the work is joined up and that research in those areas understands and can demonstrate the consequential impact on GHG’s as well.

This topic is heavily connected to research carried out by ClimateXChange, and to work undertaken by OCEA, TIMES modellers and the Climate Change Plan policy teams as well as having wider UK connections with both research and inventory work by, for example, Defra and Rothamstead.

C3. Land Use

Rural land use involves many economic activities such as forestry, agriculture and tourism, but we also need to recognise that there are wider social and environmental values (e.g. cultural heritage, biodiversity) which should be taken into account by decision makers and planners. Land and the way it is used can also contribute to the release or storage of greenhouse gases, and we must ensure that land use is optimised to make the maximum contribution to tackling climate change. All this requires a more strategic and joined-up approach, as outlined in Scotland's Land Use Strategy, and supported by suitable data. Scottish Government is committed to the establishment of new governance frameworks and partnerships for future land use planning at multiple levels from local to regional levels.


  • Planning of different land uses is fully integrated and joined up across sectors and scales.
  • Planning decisions take full account of the wider social and environmental benefits which come from land use, and not just economic benefits.
  • Changes in land use are optimised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Recommendations for effective governance and planning processes to integrate land use across sectors, and at local to regional scales.
  • Develop more timely, affordable and accessible data and metrics for land use across Scotland.
  • Evaluation of potential fiscal measures to encourage more diverse and productive land use.
  • Improved methods of valuing land and land-uses that capture the wider social and environmental benefits which are not recognised by the traditional cost-benefit approach.

Links to other research topics on land reform, climate change, natural capital and biodiversity and rural futures, and to complementary research from UKRI-NERC.

C4. Circular Economy and Waste

We want to create a more circular economy in Scotland – an economy in which products and materials are kept in high-value use for as long as possible. This concept builds on Scotland's progress in the zero waste and efficiency agendas. Developing a more circular economy will benefit both the environment (cutting waste and greenhouse gas emissions) and the economy (improving productivity and opening up new markets).

In our existing economy, we "take, make and dispose". We take resources from the ground, air and water; we make them into products and structures; then we dispose of them. In a circular economy, systems are designed to make better use of valuable products and materials – changing the way they are produced and managed to have less impact on finite natural resources, and create greater economic benefit.

A circular economy approach is linked to all areas of government and all sectors of our economy. This topic overlaps Theme B, on the sustainable food system.

Evidence to help us build new behaviours and skills, and prioritise targets for action towards a circular economy.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Better understand the behaviours that influence adoption of circular economy approaches (including from businesses and consumers, and in understanding what barriers exists to prevent adoption of circular economy approaches, and how best to communicate with different groups).
  • Develop an understanding of the skills needed to move towards a more circular economy – to support new green jobs.
  • Understand which specific items of waste produce the largest environmental concern, and what can be done to reduce waste of these items. (Items of initial interest include: textiles, mattresses, batteries and electrical equipment.)
  • Understand how materials flow through our economy and the emissions impacts of different materials. We need to understand which materials have the biggest overall environmental impact (considering their manufacture, life and disposal) in order to understand how best to tackle these materials.

Work on reducing waste and moving towards a more circular economy has links to work on climate change and natural resources. Work in this topic will link to complementary work in Zero Waste Scotland, and the UKRI-EPSRC Circular Economy research centres, amongst others.

C5. Large Scale Modelling

Many of the research topics in this strategy involve significant modelling requirements to help us understand how complex, landscape or sectoral-scale systems behave, and how this can be projected into the future. This topic seeks to bring these modelling requirements together in a strategic approach to modelling at scale. It is expected that this will involve a number of specific modelling outputs, but also work to collate and coordinate these models to provide more strategic evidence for agriculture policy, land use strategy, post-EU exit planning, and developing strategies to meet net zero emission targets.


  • To build a coherent and strategic view of interactions at the landscape or sectoral scale, through large scale and linked-up modelling.
  • To understand the limits and possibilities of various interventions to reduce GHG emissions, control nitrogen flows and enhance carbon storage in various agricultural sectors, and land uses.

To achieve this we aim to:

Large scale modelling appears under various topics and the following are a
summary of the key modelling requirements. This is not an exhaustive list but
reflects known priorities:

  • Coordinate the various data sources available, investigating new technologies such as remote sensing, and incorporating modelling techniques.
  • Model the GHG emissions from the beef, sheep and dairy sectors, and develop a single projection model to project GHG emissions under a range of Scottish farming/land scenarios (including grasslands and moorlands), to include changes in land use, agriculture and forestry under different business and emissions scenarios.
  • Model potential trade and economic impacts upon agriculture, to inform post-EU exit planning and replacement of Common Agriculture Policy.
  • Model the impacts of climate change and adaptation upon crop production, to improve plant health and resilience, and inform plant biosecurity advice and plant health policies.
  • Develop more detailed and flexible waste and circular

This is a cross-cutting topic with links to several themes, and complementary work ongoing in multiple Scottish, UK and international organisations.

C6. Use of Outdoors and Greenspace

The use of the outdoors for leisure and recreation is enjoyable in its own right but outdoor visits can also deliver a range of social, environmental and economic benefits. Valuing nature is also a driver for biodiversity conservation. Increasing the proportion of adults visiting the outdoors for recreation at least once a week has been a Scottish Government National Indicator since 2006. There has been a steady and significant increase in outdoor recreation by most adults in recent years, though some population groups have shown no significant change.

We want to establish a comprehensive picture of the mechanisms through which different population groups derive benefits from greenspace. This is particularly relevant in the context of Covid-19 when we have seen increased use of the outdoors. Equally, we also want to understand the barriers that limit access for some population groups and the incentives that might help promote behavioural/attitudinal shift in them.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Understand the mechanisms by which greenspace influences positive (or negative) outcomes (e.g. in health, wellbeing, etc). This would allow us to understand what specifically about the greenspace leads to certain outcomes and how or what parts of these could be replicated.
  • Develop an understanding and metrics of greenspace quality. Evidence suggests that quality of greenspace is vital in ensuring that the desired health and wellbeing benefits are achieved. There is however lack of adequate knowledge or consensus on what constitutes as ‘quality’ and this needs further research (linked to the mechanisms noted above).
  • Provide better economic appraisals of the costs and impact of greenspace provision and use. Current cost-benefit appraisals underestimate the wider benefits of investing in greenspaces, and new methods will help with making vital investment decisions and give a better indication of the preventative spend on health arising from investment in greenspaces.
  • Understand the key barriers faced by people in accessing the outdoors and how these can be addressed.
  • Understand behaviours amongst different population groups in relation to outdoor recreation and use of greenspace and how these link to wider environmental values and people’s ‘connection with nature’. Equally, what drives behaviours on sustainable use of the outdoors.
  • Test whether access to greenspace in early years accounts for benefits later in life.

This is multidisciplinary research that links to environmental attitudes and behaviours towards circular economy and waste, early years education, and place making.

Theme D: Natural Resources

Scotland's natural resources (air, soil, water, biodiversity) provide many essential ecosystem services which benefit human health, safety and wellbeing. They are also key to tackling the challenges of climate change and biodiversity decline, and in promoting sustainable land use and a green economy. To protect, enhance and optimise the benefits we receive from our natural resources, we need better information about their status and quality, how and why they are changing, and how best to manage and protect them.

We already have much information about our natural resources, but there are still gaps, and a need to improve the way in which we make decisions about their use and management, particularly where there are trade-offs to be made to achieve multiple benefits. We need ways to properly value natural resources and the services which they provide, so that decision makers and planners can fully take Natural Capital (both market and non-market values) into account, and to drive the changes in behaviour needed to manage and protect them.

This theme will inform decision-makers across a range of policy areas including the rural economy, environment and biodiversity protection, land management, water industry and regulation, and climate change.

Natural resources interact with each other in many ways, and it is important that the component parts of the Theme work together to make these connections and exchange information. There will also be links with work on human interactions with the environment, including climate change, GHG emissions, greenspace, and land use.

D1. Air Quality

Cleaner air provides multiple benefits including to human health, the environment, climate change and the economy. Despite reductions in air pollutants over recent years in Scotland, poor air quality still harms human health and the environment, and has a complex interrelationship with climate change.

The Cleaner Air For Scotland 2 (CAFS 2) Strategy is the main policy driver for SG and partners to work together to reduce air pollution, generate efficiencies and cost savings, and foster better policy integration. The strategy was revised following consultation in 2020. Currently, the six policy objectives relate to transport, health, place-making, legislation and policy, communication and climate change. A 2019 Independent Steering Group review recommended strengthening of evidence on public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours, both for the general population but also for under-regulated areas such as domestic biomass burning and agriculture.

Much air quality research takes place at UK level, but there is still a need for tailored evidence at Scotland level, to support Scotland-specific policies and interventions.

Scotland has the cleanest air in Europe; policy areas are well-integrated and the public are well-informed, engaged and empowered to contribute.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Assess risks, impacts and mitigation of air pollution in Scottish urban landscapes (biomass burning); identify opportunities to influence behaviours and strengthen regulation.
  • Positively influence farmer and land manager behaviour change via tools and guidance to achieve sustained reductions in site-level air pollution.
  • Improve models of air quality for agricultural emissions and domestic burning, by improving data availability and associated monitoring protocols (to improve ability to anticipate problems, mitigate and respond quickly).

Climate Change Plan, National Planning Framework 4, Routemap for Renewable Energy, Forestry and Land Scotland; multiple research Themes, especially agriculture/ GHGs, climate change and Natural Capital (economic impacts).

D2. Water

This topic will support the management of Scotland's rural and urban water resources, under the challenges of changing climate and land use.

It will inform a range of policies which concern the quality and availability of water for human consumption, water's role in the wider environment and in supporting biodiversity, and our adaption to the impacts of climate change including flood risk.

Some challenges are well recognised, and research will continue to inform the development of policy options to tackle, for example, pollution, flood risk, and to evaluate the effectiveness of water management. Other challenges are less well understood, or more uncertain, for example, the governance of water use under drought conditions, opportunities around regional land use planning, future changes and uncertainty in water quality and quantity (including flood risk), combined risks such as coastal and surface water flooding, and new risks from emerging pollutants.


  • Understanding future changes in water resources and flood risk, and the associated challenges, to aid long-term planning.
  • Identify how to build resilience into our water resources, and to adapt the ways which we manage and use them as we respond to change.
  • Effective approaches to govern the use of water resources.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Develop methods for predicting future changes to the quality and quantity of water resources and flood risk, to inform forward management strategies.
  • Develop more flexible, adaptive water management options for Scotland which can be adjusted to respond as new evidence emerges.
  • Design interventions to adapt to and/or mitigate the impacts of increasing risk from drought, flood and warmer rivers.
  • Develop the role of new regional land use planning approaches in the governance and management of water resources and flood risk.
  • Develop innovative management and governance systems for urban water.

To other water research funded by UKRI, Defra, EA, SEPA, and NatureScot. Connection with soil health research within the research portfolio. Scotland’s Hydro Nation agenda.

D3. Soils

Soils provide many benefits, from growing food and trees to less obvious functions such as filtering water, regulating water flow and, particularly for peatlands, storing carbon. However, soils remain threatened by factors such as erosion, compaction and loss of organic matter; which also have wider consequences for the environment, society and the economy. Policymakers and other decision makers therefore require robust analyses to understand the environmental, economic and societal benefits we get from soils and peatlands in a wide range of contexts.

Whilst there is no single soils policy for Scotland, the Climate Change Plan (including the Peatland Plan and the Land Use Strategy) and Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme are key policy drivers, as protecting and enhancing soil health and restoring peatlands are key to reaching net zero GHGs by 2050.

Natural Capital approaches are already adopted by Scottish Government and NatureScot to support policymaking (e.g. for potential agricultural support 'payment by results' schemes, biodiversity protection, water quality). These would benefit from more evidence on how soils contribute, including their monetary and non-monetary value. More real world data is needed, both to validate scientific models of climate change impacts and to monitor impacts of interventions. There is also a need for tools to encourage behaviour change and uptake of incentives for peatland restoration and sustainable soil management.

Maximise the contribution of Scotland’s soil and peatlands to reduce GHG emissions and other ecosystem services. Optimal uptake of sustainable soil and peatland management practices, with strong stakeholder engagement.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Understand the role and estimate monetary/non-monetary value of soils and peatlands in delivering net GHG reductions and other key ecosystem services.
  • Model how peatlands and managed soils may be impacted by future climate change, to explore policy options for minimising soil degradation (e.g. under extreme events). This could benefit Regional Land Use Partnerships, and the design of agricultural support measures.
  • Identify options for strategic and systematic soil and peatland monitoring, based on best use of available and novel data, with effectiveness of interventions assessed, to allow timely, cost-effective and appropriate responses to changing conditions.
  • Develop user-friendly ‘packaged’ soil and peatland metrics and indicators to support land based businesses and policymakers.

UK GHG inventory reporting, Climate Change Plan, Peatland ACTION project, Regional Land Use Partnerships, Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme Action Plan, Land Use Plan, Environment Strategy 2020, future agriculture strategy and agri-support mechanisms, Natural Capital.

D4. Biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of life on the planet: ecosystems, species and variation within species. Ecosystems, including the soils which support them, provide us with services including food, water quality, carbon capture, flood management, energy and enjoyment. Species are key components of these ecosystems, with their genetic composition and functioning giving the resilience they need to adapt to climate change, pollution and new pests and pathogens. As well as being important in its own right, biodiversity has important social dimensions, contributing positively to our mental and physical wellbeing.

The biodiversity and climate change crises are linked. They share many of the same drivers, but also many of the same solutions. Biodiversity is essential for sustaining the living ecosystems that provide us with food, fibre, water, energy, and medicines. It is also important when considering climate change, pollution, water quality, flood control and has important social dimensions, contributing positively to our mental and physical wellbeing.

The protection of Scotland's biodiversity and ecosystems is a key priority for Scottish Government and we are committed to doing more to protect and enhance our species and habitat diversity (at spatial, compositional and genetic scales).

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently developing the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) as a stepping stone towards the 2050 Vision of "Living in harmony with nature". This will be adopted at the CBD Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Kunming, China, and will include development of a monitoring framework. In Scotland, the policy position is currently being developed to support these drivers.

Research on the function, services, and resilience of ecosystems, on valuing and accessing nature, and on biodiversity management will help to deliver our aspirations for biodiversity conservation and associated national and international targets. Whilst the specific goals are yet to be agreed, Scotland is committed to playing our part in international efforts to safeguard biodiversity.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Improve knowledge on the distinctiveness and state of nature in Scotland in terms of species, genetics, habitats and ecosystem functionality and resilience (including health of soils), and viability of and risks to nature.
  • Develop evidence on the benefits of nature, notably through nature-based solutions to societal challenges (health and wellbeing, climate change, biodiversity loss, resilience, economic pressures, poverty and inequality).
  • Develop evidence of the pressures upon biodiversity in Scotland and their impacts, especially the indirect and direct drivers of biodiversity loss identified by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Understanding mechanisms of resilience in the face of these pressures, particularly the role of agri-environment incentive schemes and climate change, is a key evidence need.
  • Develop evidence-based solutions that enhance nature and biodiversity, across a range of policies, practice and scales (including green infrastructure, farming, protected areas, habitat connectivity and ancient woodland restoration) while recognising the connections to other sectors.
  • nhance our evidence base of effective conservation action, to recognise which interventions are working and why. This is particularly important where Scotland has international responsibility, such as in marine and coastal habitats, temperate rainforest, peatlands, oceanic arctic-alpine heaths, and specifically for seabirds, lichens and bryophytes.
  • Develop techniques and results that are internationally applicable, allowing us to be good global citizens. The Edinburgh Declaration gives a special impetus, as does the implementation of elements of the Scottish Biodiversity Information Forum recommendations by building capacity of local record centres and new ways of gathering and sharing data.
  • Establish a new, time-limited Centre of Expertise on Biodiversity to support actions around the developing SG’s Biodiversity Plan. This will focus on providing short term policy relevant evidence and research and will complement longer term research carried out through the Strategic Research Programme.

This topic has significant linkages to the topics on crop disease, food security, water, air quality, soil health, natural capital, access to green spaces and improving agricultural practice.

D5. Natural Capital

Natural Capital is the world's stock of natural resources. This includes air, water, minerals and all living things. Scotland's rich and diverse natural environment is one of our most important national assets. It is fundamental to our health, our way of life and our economy.

Protecting and enhancing our natural capital is of central importance to Scotland's response to the global economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and will play a vital role in future land-use and agricultural policies in Scotland.

Scotland has a range of excellent natural capital measurement and monitoring tools and programmes. However, a joined-up systematic approach to measuring our natural assets would allow decision makers in government and other sectors to take potential impacts on natural capital into account.

We want to establish a more comprehensive picture of the quantity and quality of all natural assets in Scotland, and how these interact with one another. This work will allow policy makers, planners and businesses to better assess the potential impact that changes may have on natural assets and their ability to provide ecosystem services.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Review all existing evidence on natural assets in Scotland and identify any key gaps.
  • Undertake additional research to gather data on assets for which little evidence is currently available, in order to establish timely and comprehensive assessments of natural assets in Scotland.
  • Better understand the relationship between natural capital and climate change – both by understanding which natural assets are most at risk from climate changes in Scotland, and by better understanding the ways in which our natural environment can mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts through nature based solutions.
  • Explore the dependencies upon Natural Capital, and clarify the associated risks and implications for policy, the economy and business from any declines in Natural Capital.
  • Develop resources to provide these data to economists, policymakers, and wider audiences.

Research on natural capital must connect with a range of other research on our land use and natural assets, their resilience in future, and integrate with economic research on Scotland’s other capital stocks. Research partners will include Defra, JNCC, ESRC and UKRI-NERC.

Theme E: Rural Futures

Rural Scotland comprises 98% of Scotland's land mass and is home to 17% of Scotland's people. In 2018, the GVA of the rural economy was reported to be £37.6 billion which represents 26% of Scotland's total.

Key longstanding issues for Scotland's rural and island areas are depopulation, limited or seasonal opportunities for employment, constraints on services (education, housing, childcare, broadband access and fuel poverty), and community empowerment. Considerable attention is currently being given to economic recovery in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and it is recognised that the economic consequences of EU exit are expected to be strongly felt in rural communities. A focus on green recovery may offer considerable opportunities for rural areas.

The Scottish Government is committed to sustainable rural development and ensuring that rural and island communities are treated fairly in policy making. Other commitments include sustainable economic growth, environmental protection, diversification of land ownership and support for community ownership of land. The intention is that communities should become better involved in decisions made about land and other aspects of their areas, with 'place based' policies growing in importance. As well as research in Scotland, there is considerable opportunity to learn from, and collaborate with, rural communities around the world.

E1. Rural Economy

This research topic is concerned with providing evidence to policymakers to support the effective development of the rural economy. The rural economy is diverse and more than 90% is outside of the traditional primary industries of agriculture, fisheries and forestry. It includes a wide range of activity including food and drink manufacturing and accommodation services linked to tourism. Self-employment is more common in rural areas than urban areas. Growing interest in a green economic recovery offers particular opportunities for rural economies to capitalise on.


  • Identify improvements to the support mechanisms for rural businesses, including those which sit outside of agriculture and those linked to the ‘green economy’.
  • Tools to embed rural policy across national government policies.
  • Evidence to drive improvements in equality and inclusion in rural businesses.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Review the extent to which current approaches to business support meet the needs of the rural economy, how these might be improved and the implications for adopting a national approach to rural business support.
  • Identify and develop evidence for rural funding programmes outside of agriculture.
  • Develop evidence on a wide range of rural equality issues to support rural workers, including but not limited to: the lack of participation of women in agriculture, health and safety on farms, and other protected characteristics.
  • Design a set of rural social data indicators, which can be used to ensure that rural need is embedded throughout the development of national policy.
  • Learn from others internationally.

Links to other research topics on rural communities, land use, natural capital and to research in UKRI-ESRC.

E2. Rural Communities

Rural and island communities have experienced long-standing issues relating to population and demographic change, sustainable rural development, public service delivery, equalities and socioeconomic opportunities. The key policy drivers include: rural depopulation, employment, education and skills, housing and infrastructure, community empowerment and ensuring that island and rural priorities are accounted for throughout government's policy and legislation.

Better understanding of the issues around, and solutions to mitigate depopulation in rural Scotland.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Gather evidence to develop policy interventions in rural areas facing critical levels of depopulation, with the aim to encourage inward migration and increase local opportunities for young people.
  • Develop case studies of innovative solutions to childcare and afterschool provision in rural Scotland, with the aim to increase labour market opportunities for parents.
  • Address the equalities knowledge gap by collecting evidence on the size, and lived experience, of minority groups in rural Scotland. This will be used when carrying out Equality Impact Assessments during the policy making process.
  • Explore ways in which the capacity and impact of the Scottish Rural Parliament can be increased in order to build communities’ opportunities for collaboration and participation in decision making.

Links to the research topic on rural economy. Rural childcare research is closely connected to ongoing work conducted by the Women in Agriculture Taskforce.

E3. Land Reform

Land reform in Scotland includes matters relating to the ownership, use and management of land and associated rights and responsibilities. The Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, published in 2017, sets out the key policy drivers of diversifying land ownership, and increasing community engagement in decisions about land. The Statement's commitment to environmental stewardship is also now heightened by the climate emergency and the setting of Net Zero emission targets, and this will draw in issues around the rights and responsibilities of land ownership in relation to land use and greenhouse gas emissions. The Scottish Land Commission is also developing advice and guidance around the Statement, and will advise Scottish Government on land reform.

Evidence to support policies around the development of community ownership, community engagement, and better understanding of the role of land ownership in achieving net zero emissions and reversing biodiversity decline for Scotland.

To achieve this we aim to:

  • Compare Scottish governance structures and those elsewhere in Europe to identify the scope for change and benefits of alternative approaches. This should also contribute to the development of regional land use partnerships.
  • Assess the effectiveness of community ownership strategies.
  • Review the fiscal measures that may be used to address concentrated land ownership, their legal basis, how they relate to ownership patterns and structures in Scotland, and an analysis of the likely impacts of different measures on the current situation.
  • Review the effects of diversified land ownership. This should also consider a better approach for valuing land and land use. Analyse and identify the best approaches to forestry to address the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, in the context of Scotland’s current land ownership pattern.

Links to research on land use within this strategy, and also to the work and supporting
research undertaken by the Scottish Land Commission.


Email: helen.m.jones@gov.scot

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