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The Impact of Coronavirus on Rural Scotland – A contribution from the SEGS Group: Part 2

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Blog picture: The Impact of Coronavirus on Rural Scotland – A contribution from the SEGS Group: Part 2
Peer-to-peer learning opportunities for Scottish agriculture support individuals and businesses to innovate and overcome economic challenges

2. The impact on agriculture

With contributions from: Dominic Duckett, Mags Currie, Carla Barlagne, Claire Hardy, Leanne Townsend, Sharon Flanigan, Ruth Wilson, Jon Hopkins, and Annabel Pinker.

During this period of global crisis, many of us are concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on rural Scotland. In this second in a series of blog posts (please see the previous post on community resilience and social innovation here) on the issue, we consider the impact of the virus on aspects of the social systems in agriculture, land and food supply. What do we know already from our social science experience? How can this knowledge help farmers, rural businesses, communities, and policy makers respond?

Media reports over the past couple of weeks have highlighted the impact of a disruption to the ‘just in time’ model of food production and supply. In the meantime, the farming community faces labour shortages, with workers unable to travel from overseas, on the one hand, whilst members of their existing workforce are forced to self-isolate and recover from illness, on the other. In this post, we present two research areas that may be helpful in coming to some understanding of the impacts of (and potential opportunities posed by) the Coronavirus crisis for the rural economy: the importance of social capital and collaboration in Scottish agriculture, as well as land and food security issues.

Social capital and collaboration in Scottish agriculture

Opportunities for farm businesses to develop social capital has been the focus of several previous and ongoing studies in the SEGS group, both European Union funded projects and strategic research for the Scottish Government. Investigation of peer-to-peer learning opportunities through current initiatives such as Monitor Farms and Agritourism Monitor Farms, as well as past programmes such as ‘Planning to Succeed’, highlight the importance of different types of relationships, including opportunities to ‘bond’ with others in similar circumstances as well as ‘bridge’ with individuals and businesses in a position to provide strategic business support (1). These studies also illustrate the importance of key individuals involved in facilitating networking and learning (as demonstrated by the H2020 NEFERTITI project). Examples of such skills and networks being mobilised to provide immediate support for citizens and businesses experiencing economic impacts associated with measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 are already being seen (e.g. virtual agritourism support groups). This form of community of practice also provides enduring opportunities in the medium-term for connection and sustained learning alongside the capacity to support longer term economic recovery where appropriate platforms and structures are put in place (e.g. online discussion and training).

Benefits associated with collaboration in agriculture have also been found in the context of past and ongoing research. Ongoing analysis of interviews with members of the Lothians Monitor Farm community group points to new economic resilience and efficiencies and positive environmental impacts as a result of real-time collaborative trials conducted with the local farming community (see the interim report (2); final report forthcoming). Such trials also signify wider change in the agriculture sector, whereby the social and cultural acceptability of farmers working together increases with time and generational renewal. Published research by Sharon Flanigan and Lee-Ann Sutherland investigating machinery rings also scrutinised this trend and argued that machinery rings represent an opportunity for farmers to circumvent concerns relating to loss of independence and autonomy by accessing collaboration as a form of service provision mediated through facilitators (3). While constituted as agricultural cooperatives, ‘machinery rings’ are increasingly identified as rural business rings and represent a unique, flexible, responsive, and demand-driven means of collaboration (4) with potential to provide increasing support for rural Scotland during difficulties associated with the Covid-19 outbreak. Indeed, Scotland’s machinery rings were borne of economic challenges faced by farmers in the 1980s and are in themselves illustrative of how latent social capital may be mobilised towards greater resource sharing and cooperation in times of crisis.

Land and food security

It is clear that the Coronavirus outbreak has given rise to greater public awareness and interest in where our food is produced, and therefore arguably, how land is used for food production in Scotland and beyond. Inherently this asks questions of those who make land use decisions and how the public interest is considered in these decisions. This is fundamental to the Scottish Government’s land reform policy, as illustrated in the ‘Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement’. The drive to increase landownership diversity and the involvement of communities in decisions relating to land are key objectives of both the Scottish Land Commission and the wider movement to support increasing land access for those who wish to start farming in Scotland, as reported by Annie McKee and colleagues (5). In post-virus Scotland, we anticipate more people seeking to access local food supplies and a revival of small-scale food production to meet this demand. It may be necessary to consider incentivising landowners to provide access to land for smallholders and other new entrants.

The demand for local food production may be met through supporting more young farmers and new entrants to agriculture.

Furthermore, the current crisis highlights the importance of valuing and maintaining existing plant genetic resources available at the national level and grown by the commercial sector (as investigated by Carla Barlagne (6)) and also by non-commercial growers (e.g. grass-root organisations, communities and individual gardeners) (as discussed by Carol Kyle and colleagues (7)). This would ensure that they can contribute to increased national food security and the resilience of the food system.

Aspects of the food supply chain, in common with many elements of industrialised modern economies, are increasingly interdependent. Goods and services from production and transportation to retail distribution, all rely, to a lesser or greater extent, on ‘people moving around’ in today’s globalised world society. Scotland’s food comes from everywhere and the farm to fork journey involves an almost unimaginable series of human interactions. Our current crisis management focus on consumers’ journeys to supermarkets and our individual behavioural attitude to shop less frequently and more responsibly, along with other discretionary choices around leisure activities, are critical to slowing the spread of the virus. However, in our globalised world viruses will continue to circulate rapidly and, worryingly, each new epidemiological threat, following Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, SARS, African Swine Fever and MERS, in recent succession, brings in its wake an economic threat that penalises the poor and the global south. In his research paper, Dominic Duckett and colleagues explain that fundamental political approaches to risk management and society need to be explored (8).

References

(1) Flanigan, S. (Under review) Social capital development in group-based learning: an agritourism case study (submitted to Tourism Management).

(2) Flanigan, S., Shortall, O., Wilson, R., Hardy, C. and Sutherland, L-A. (2019) Learning and Change Through Monitor Farms: Interim report Available online at: https://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Monitor%20Farms%20report%20Hutton%20Mar19.pdf

(3) Flanigan, S. and Sutherland, L-A. (2016) Buying Access to Social Capital? From Collaboration to Service Provision in an Agricultural Co‐operative. Sociologia Ruralis 56(4): 471-490. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/soru.12092

(4) Flanigan, S. (2015) Regional Sustainability Transitions: Machinery Rings in Scotland. Research report for FP7 FarmPath Project. Available online: https://farmpath.hutton.ac.uk/FarmerCollaborationScotland

(6) Barlagne, C. (2019) Report on the challenges and opportunities of genetic agrodiversity in the Scottish potato sector Scotland. Presented at Potatoes in Practice, James Hutton Institute's Balruddery Farm, Dundee, 8 August 2019, 15pp.

(5) McKee, A.J.; Sutherland, L.; Hopkins, J.; Flanigan, S.; Rickett, A. (2018) Increasing the availability of farmland for new entrants to agriculture in Scotland. Final Report to the Scottish Land Commission, 76pp. Available online: https://landcommission.gov.scot/downloads/5dd6a2d2ac866_McKee-et-al.-Final-report-to-SLC-Increasing-land-availability-for-new-entrants-2.5.2018.pdf

(7) Kyle, C.; Duckett, D.; Barlagne, C. (2018) Protecting genetic diversity of Scotland's potatoes., Report on the Workshop held at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, 21 January 2018, 17pp.

(8) Duckett, D., B. Wynne, R. M. Christley, A. L. Heathwaite, M. Mort, Z. Austin, J. M. Wastling, S. M. Latham, R. Alcock and P. Haygarth (2015). "Can Policy Be Risk-Based? The Cultural Theory of Risk and the Case of Livestock Disease Containment." Sociologia Ruralis 55(4): 379-399. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/soru.12064

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.