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Co-designing and implementing best-fit farming practices


With a value of around £14 billion each year, the food and drink industry in Scotland is a significant contributor to the economy. This significant capacity has underpinned Scotland’s reputation as a land of high-quality, healthy food and drink. All of this has helped formulate Scotland’s Food and Drink Ambition 2030 aims to double the value of the food and drink sector by 2030 to £30 billion. However, the increasing problems of climate change, in terms of long-term basic environmental change and increased weather extremes, are making production increasingly challenging.


The drive to net zero recently has been accelerated by the update to the Scottish climate change plan with the associated potential to transform the agricultural and food production system. At the same time, it is well recognised that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and related land use accounted for 24% of the total emissions in 2017, down 29% from the baseline levels of 1990.


Major changes to farmer behaviour are needed to achieve the Scottish Government’s climate change targets whilst developing a resilient, productive agricultural sector following the UK’s departure from the European Union. Improving agricultural practices will be critical for ensuring sustainable and resource-efficient food production, supporting rural community resilience and economic development, addressing the biodiversity and nature crises, facilitating green recovery, and tackling the global climate emergency.



  • To what extent is the basic and best farming practice in Scottish agriculture applied?
  • Where are the opportunities for improving the inefficiencies in Scottish agriculture?
  • What are the barriers to increasing the level of basic and best practices in Scottish agriculture and how do we reduce them, thus improving productivity?


This project identifies and develop approaches which aim to influence farm-level actions substantially and incrementally, recognising that these occur within broad institutional and economic contexts.

Major transformational changes tend to occur more sporadically, in response to ‘trigger’ events. In Scotland, triggers are expected to include the effects of the EU exit, the progression of Scotland’s land reform agenda and generational renewal. It may also include less predictable triggers such as disease outbreaks and major weather events. Following these types of triggers, farmers have been shown to actively seek and implement innovative solutions. We are quantifying the impact and influence of ‘trigger events’ on basic and best-fit practices, developing measurable approaches for influencing farmer behaviour. Best fit practices are the optimal practices for a given farm within its socio-ecological context.

The project advances previous studies which have demonstrated that farmers are not always profit maximisers: farmers respond strongly to social norms and have a range of ‘lock-ins’. The project builds on participatory approaches demonstrating that social learning processes can facilitate co-innovation in farming practice. These new approaches are being promoted through on-farm demonstrations, workshops, training events and multimedia campaigns.

The project achieves these outcomes through a combination of:

  • Farmer Intentions Survey - longitudinal research with a representative sample of Scottish farmers identifying key trigger points and incremental shifts in farming practice
  • ‘Living Labs’ to work directly with farmers and industry stakeholders to co-create, implement, and evaluate approaches to influencing farmer behaviour ‘ on the ground’
  • Three sets of empirical case studies linked to the living labs assess how best-fit practices are understood and communicated amongst farmers' economic experiments to test the utility of new measures and interventions and how these can be implemented

The case studies particularly emphasise social media and digital platforms. Many farmers have digitally upskilled during the pandemic, altering how they learn about and assess practices. It offers new opportunities for promoting transformational change that we are capitalising on in this project.

Project Partners

James Hutton Institute


2022 / 2023
2022 / 2023

The specific aims of this project are to:

  • Develop approaches to influence farmer behaviour and effect change on the ground.
  • 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.

Year 1 has focused on setting the foundations for addressing these objectives, through an evidence review, stakeholder engagement and planning of empirical field research for Year 2. Some new empirical research that has been undertaken includes a novel 'netnography' research method to assess farmers' practices in relation to social media. Findings show that diversified farm businesses use these platforms to reach new markets, sell more products and services, and to build their professional networks. There is however a need for basic training to enable more farmers to effectively use social media. Numerous barriers to effective engagement exist, including those related to digital connectivity, digital skills and time availability.

Six policy briefs have been compiled, circulated to policy officers and uploaded onto Zenodo, addressing barriers to uptake of best practices in relation to different topics (e.g., social media, biosecurity and innovation uptake). The experimental economics brief outlines how the costs and benefits of specific interventions can be identified. 

To identify approaches to directly influence farmer behaviour, each of the 'Living Labs' held stakeholder engagement meetings. Discussions with farmers and other agricultural stakeholders have identified key focus areas for improving arable and horticultural practice, motivated by external drivers influencing input costs, environmental (climate, pest and disease) pressures and labour availability. From these activities a conceptual map for agrifood system/value chains linked to arable and horticulture production and their interactions with the biophysical ecosystem was developed, which will inform subsequent modelling. Opportunities for collaborative research on sustainable best fit practice has been disseminated to farmers via farmer groups which has led to several farmers making contact with us. In addition, biosecurity measures in low production systems have been explored with Lewis and Harris crofters, focusing on sheep scab and roundworm disease control. Five workshops were held to gather data on biosecurity measures currently in use and barriers to practical implementation.

The preparation of the data collection for the 2023 Farmers Intention Survey - a survey of 2 500 farmers undertaken in collaboration with the research team working on the project entitled 'Ensuring positive behavioural change for farmers towards best practice for clean growth: economics and behavioural investigations', has been completed. This comprised of the procurement of a market research company, ethics approval, data sharing agreements, survey development as well as developing a sampling strategy.

The experimental economics team worked in collaboration with the researchers involved in the arable and horticulture collaborative case study to co-design the first economic experiment, which will be implemented in Year 2. Farmers belonging to the arable and horticulture hubs were interviewed to identify barriers and potential levers to the adoption of agro-ecological practices, as well as their perceived costs and benefits.

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