Making the rural a bit more idyllic

In the latest CRE blog, we have a guest post by Christina Dobson, Research Associate at the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University. Christina’s research is focused on inequalities in cancer diagnosis and outcomes, and in her blog she discusses how living in rural areas may influence these.

Ah, the countryside. The home of all that is natural and healthy, the epitome of the ‘good life’. Where you can stroll down the lane to collect fresh eggs or veggies from your neighbour, simply dropping your money in the honesty box left at the end of their drive. I grew up in a rural area, and still live in one now. I love that I only have to walk (more like dawdle – I have a very curious and distractible three year old!) for 10 minutes (five minutes without said three year old) from my front door and I am in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.And it seems that living in a rural area could actually be good for you in a number of ways. You are likely to be more satisfied with your life, experience better health overall, and live an average of two years longer than people in urban areas. Maybe it’s the un-polluted air, the connection between land and food, the sense of belonging and community? Or maybe that is just a myth, sold to us all through Postman Pat?

Because, actually, living amidst the beautiful rolling hills may not be so good for you if you develop cancer. In fact, it may even put you at greater risk of developing certain cancers and make you less likely to survive your cancer. With roughly 20% of the population of England living in a rural area, this poses a serious public health problem.

However, we don’t really know why rural patients are facing poorer survival rates than urban patients. One of the strongest factors is that cancer is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage in rural patients, limiting the treatment options available to them. We know that delays in diagnosis are strongly linked to advanced stage cancers, and, as such, encouraging early diagnosis has been central to UK cancer policy for over a decade.

When we begin to think about where diagnostic delays may be occurring for rural patients, it seems that they are investigated and diagnosed just as quickly as urban patients, after referral to hospital for specialist assessment. It follows then that there may be problems prior to referral to hospital that are slowing down rural cancer patients’ diagnoses, either in the way patients respond to symptoms, or the way they are managed in primary care.

Thanks to funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, and alongside colleagues from Aberdeen and Glasgow, we are starting to look for answers to some of these questions. This study will involve interviewing people in rural Yorkshire to understand their experiences of bowel cancer symptoms and decisions around if, how, and when to seek help about them. The findings from these interviews will be used to work with local communities to think about what interventions we may be able to design to encourage people in rural areas to present to their GP and, hopefully, increase the likelihood that their cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage and that they will survive.

It is an exciting study, as there is so little known about symptom experiences in rural populations, with lots of issues to explore. For instance, availability and regularity of public transport, provision of health care services in rural areas, hidden poverty, cultural beliefs and experiences of ill health and employment, to name but a few. And then there’s the messy complexity of defining the ‘rural’, or maybe we should be looking to instead describe the multitudes of ‘rurals’? Plenty to keep me busy!

With the arrival of National Bowel Cancer Awareness Month earlier this year it has been valuable to reflect on the importance of this study and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Understanding some of the barriers to timely presentation that exist for rural populations, and devising ways to overcome them is our challenge for the next two years, and beyond. Maybe, longer term, we can help to make the ‘rural’ a bit more idyllic.


This blog was initially posted on the Centre for Translational Research into Public Policy (FUSE) blog.

Northumberland communities about their predictions of the change in land use post Brexit

In the latest CRE blog artist in residence Gemma Burditt  discusses the first of her interviews with Northumberland communities about their predictions of the change in land use post Brexit.

Chickens in Northumberland by Gemma Burditt

In June of this year I made my way back to Northumberland to continue my research on the implications of Brexit on the rural north, focusing specifically on how land use might change post Brexit.

One of the more optimistic predictions which Michael Gove has begun work on, is that Brexit might provide an opportunity for British farming to work hand in hand with conservation and be rewarded in subsidies for acts which serve to increase biodiversity, create cleaner water and a more sustainable future. Farmers may also be encouraged to diversify into greener enterprises such as renting out land for renewable energy production or ecotourism. I was interested to speak to land owners, farmers and land based business owners to see how optimistic they felt about a post Brexit future, their predictions, aspirations and firm plans for the next few years ahead.

The last time I had spent significant time in Northumberland was during the winter months of 2016 / 2017; so, as I travel north from Newcastle to Berwick, I look out of the train window to see a landscape bursting with Spring optimism. The trail littered with wind turbines allows me to dream for a moment that a greener future for the country and food production might be obtainable after all. But looking more closely at the patchwork of fields, I begin to really understand what the statistic of 70% of the UK’s landscape being made up of farmland really looks like. When I think of the countryside, what appears in my head is just this, acres and acres of carefully orchestrated crops grown for their lucrative value which is not exactly “natural.” In fact with the increasing intensification of production, farmland more often than not is an actively hostile place for insects, birds and plants.

Saplings by Gemma Burditt

On the first day we meet two local land owners, one of whom tells us about how his land is made up: a farm in hand and several let out to tenant farmers with diversification into let out commercial properties and cafe. He has a genuine interest in conservation preferring to run a mixed farm while doing as much as he can to create woodland and habitats to increase biodiversity. He was fairly pessimistic about Brexit and was particularly concerned about the future of livestock farming as a no deal Brexit would mean paying tariffs of up to 45% on lamb and 60% on beef going into Europe. There was also concern that many farmers in the area cared a great deal about maintaining the highest animal welfare standards and if the markets opened up to the rest of the world, they would be competing against farmers who could produce meat more cheaply but perhaps not so stringently. This would perhaps result in many livestock farms going under. So what would this land be used for instead? His idea for his own farm was to take any unproductive land out of use to be used for forestry as it had the potential to be both profitable and increase biodiversity.

View from St. Oswalds Church by Gemma Burditt

The following day I met with Nicola Bell who worked with the CRE on a number of research projects and now works on LEADER projects trying to help small business and community projects to become more sustainable. She was kind enough to take me up to St.Oswald’s church and show me the view north of this point. Standing along the trail of Hadrian’s Wall, Nicola points out Kielder forest and explains how previously the woodland had been commercial but was now focusing more on the visitor economy. We can see quarries, wind farms, farmland and the RSPB conservation area. What is striking is how every piece of land is owned and accounted for. Although Kielder is working towards a more visitor based economy working on several conservation projects, it is so striking how the way we value even the countryside and natural landscape is based so heavily on economic outputs.

It would be very difficult for new innovative land based projects to emerge within this landscape as it is so unlikely that any land in the area would ever come up for sale without being snapped up immediately for a high price. Nicola was doubtful that land prices would be set to fall in the area after Brexit even if farmers were to sell up.

In the neighboring area I meet with Mark, aligned with the permaculture movement with his young WOOFA (willing worker on organic farm) Sam. He talks me through his various land based projects including plans for a new orchard, a social enterprise where homeless people would come and help plant and maintain the trees grown. Mark shows me around his fantastic garden, including saplings destined for the orchard. It looks like something out of 70s TV sitcom “The Good Life” with every inch of land being used to grow vegetables, trees and fruits – often in inventive containers made from unwanted items. He explains how proud he is that he doesn’t own anything. After spending the week hearing words such as “assets, profits, outputs” my ears really prick up to hear such a phrase being uttered, and what a rarity to meet anyone who doesn’t aspire to ownership particularly of property or land.

Some of the crops in Mark’s garden by Gemma Burditt

Obviously Mark is not aiming to stock the Sainsbury’s veg department so he is not under the same pressure as a regular farmer to maximise profits but it is difficult not to agree with the permaculture philosophy to “design intelligent systems which meet human needs whilst enhancing biodiversity, reducing our impact on the planet, and creating a fairer world for us all.” The permaculture movement has perhaps been sidelined as a somewhat hippy movement, but there seems real potential here to capitalise (sorry I know I’m doing it now!) on the wave of interest in locally produced food and create innovative community based projects as Mark is doing to bring people together through the love of growing.

There are several permaculture based veg box schemes in the area such as North East Organic Growers, a co-operative based near Bedlington all supplying locally grown organic produce to the area creating a sense of community and producing seasonal produce in a more sustainable way. Obviously this comes at a price and with an increasing percent of the population on stagnant incomes this is not an option for everyone.

On the way to Hexham I had seen a field which was filled with poppies. It looked like a memorial installation to commemorate the First World War, but after asking Mark about it, he explained that since Europe had banned certain weed killers, poppies had been easily able to grow again alongside wheat. I thought it was an interesting example of how European policy literally had changed how our landscape looked visually. Even down to the crops we are growing. Rapeseed for example, is soaring in popularity due to recent reports of olive oil prices spiraling after a poor European harvest and a bacteria outbreak affecting Italian olive trees. Rapeseed has such a striking yellow colour that it can dominate any landscape and challenge our concept of the British landscape made up of the traditional greens and browns. Rapeseed itself is also a controversial crop as it is often intensely farmed reliant on heavy use of pesticides and weed killers.

Finally we talk to a young researcher conducting tests into innovative crops which could grow in the UK partly in response to creating a more sustainable food production line and perhaps also with Brexit looming on the horizon; trying to find more profitable crops which grow easily in our climate. The two main trials were for Spelt and Buckwheat which again interested me in terms of the visual impact these would have on our landscape. The latter particularly having a striking appearance with fluffy white flowers protruding from the plant. A move towards a more plant based diet and unpredictable climate may also influence what we decide to grow in the future.

On the whole there was a lot less fear than I was expecting from a community so vulnerable to a no deal Brexit. There was also a unanimous feeling that the focus of the post Brexit agricultural policy would have to be working towards a greener and more sustainable future, although there was very little faith that the government would provide much support to aide these changes. Many were fastening their seatbelts praying that Boris Johnson didn’t get in – oh dear!

There were several more interviews conducted this week which I will discuss further in a future blog.

A rural sociologist at the Venice Art Biennale

In the latest CRE blog senior lecturer Menelaos Gkartzios reflects on his visit to the Venice Art Biennale.

From ‘SaF05’, Charlotte Prodger, Scotland + Venice partnership


The vaporetto from the airport to Venice was noticeably slow, and I swear the quality of water had been improved drastically. I decided that ‘slow transport’ was part of a strategy that sought minimum interruption in a city that was sinking – literally and metaphorically. In the middle of August, of all times, I had come to attend the Venice Art Biennale – for the first time. Artistic practice represents a new avenue of research for me, following the research network in Japan on art and rural development, the CRE Artist-in-Residence programme and the newly advertised rural Artist Residencies at Visual Arts in Rural Communities, as well as the upcoming Special Section in Sociologia Ruralis on ‘Doing Art in the Country’.

I wasn’t necessarily looking for the function or the meaning of the artworks, and the director’s introduction reassured me that there was no need to. I saw the artworks as a critique, an exploration of a particular topic, a research approach, and sometimes as nothing to ponder on. I arrived wondering where and how ‘the rural’ is positioned at the festival, obviously not as a space for exhibiting works of art, but as a field of knowledge that artists are engaging with: what questions of rurality (if any) are explored through contemporary visual arts? I approached the festival as if I was walking around a park. In fact, part of the festival takes place at the Venice Giardini, The Gardens. Years ago, a Dublin-based artist had advised me against seeing everything in an art exhibition. ‘Imagine you are in a park’. Some flowers, he continued, might take your fancy; you might even get closer to smell some, while others you will ignore. Handy advice I thought to myself when you are dealing with so much work: two art presentations offered as ‘propositions’ (one in the Giardini and one at the Arsenale), national pavilions and a series of other parallel exhibitions throughout the city. So I strolled at the park. Slowly and many times.

I came of course with my own rural preoccupations. Rurality had found its way to the festival, although not necessarily in explicit terms. Drawing here on the national representation entries (i.e. the pavilions) for example, there were questions of rurality in Charlotte Prodger’s intimate confessions about her queer identity growing up in ‘the village’ in rural Scotland. There were representations of rurality in the numerous landscapes that were used to depict Ghana’s natural resources and people in the moving (moving) images of John Akomfrah. Or in the video footage of tsunami rocks (presented as ‘cosmo-eggs’) washed out from the ocean and the multiple meanings these have for coastal communities much damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan – an entry that was fascinating to me because of its interdisciplinary work across ethnography, art, music and architecture. There were artworks about indigenous rural communities, for example the Inuit people and the forced relocation they were subjected to at the Canadian pavilion by artist collective Isuma. And there were more.

From ‘Cosmo-eggs’, Motoyuki Shitamichi, Japanese pavilion

Of course, to see the art festival solely through the rural lens is to reduce it. The trend of engaging critically with ‘the rural’ was there, although this could be easily missed were you not looking for it. Following the curator’s introduction, social critiques were abundant at the festival, and these seemed in line with ongoing discussions in social sciences about decolonising the academy and the art world, racial struggles and white hegemony, transgender rights, climate change, migration, poverty and the growth of ultra-right politics. Some artworks were extremely powerful in addressing these in a profound way, and if you ever have a chance to watch Arthur Jafa’s acclaimed video ‘The White Album’ please do, as anything I might try to write here about it seems too little.

As in any festival, it was the social element that makes it. The ‘art crowd’ as it is derogatively called sometimes, was friendly and engaging, and I met many people attending the festival, including fellow social scientists from across the world. ‘The rural?’ some would ask in puzzlement. Despite the posters everywhere in the city about the Biennale, many tourists didn’t know about it. It doesn’t matter, Venice is a sort of an art festival on its own, I thought. Still, the festival and its venues took me to places I wouldn’t normally go, and there were enough scattered exhibitions around the city to give you an adventure. Enough to see Venice in a different way, with washing lines hanging outdoors, kids playing on the backstreets and empty traditional cafes. All slow, walking in the city – all slow as the rural is sometimes, mistakenly, typified to be.


Changing Trade Regimes and the Future of Agriculture and Rural Communities – Session at the 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress, Trondheim, Norway

Changing Trade Regimes and the Future of Agriculture and Rural Communities – Session at the 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress, Trondheim, Norway

This week we are delighted to have a guest post from Jane Atterton, Policy Researcher at the SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre. She reflects on her participation in a session organised by the CRE’s Carmen Hubbard and Adrienne Attorp at the recent 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress (ESRS) in Trondheim, Norway.

Vegetable farm outside of Trondheim

Working group 27 at the ESRS 2019 Congress, titled ‘Changing Trade Regimes: Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture and Rural Communities’, featured five speakers each focusing on different challenges and opportunities currently facing agriculture and rural communities across Europe – a fascinating session which covered an incredible breadth of topics.

Dr Carmen Hubbard opened the session by presenting the key findings of her recent ESRC-funded project on Brexit and how UK agriculture and its different sectors may survive or thrive.

Dr Hannah Chiswell from the Countryside and Community Research Institute then provided further reflections on the future of UK agriculture, including the need to strengthen the farmer voice in current Brexit debates.

SRUC’s Dr Jane Atterton then discussed some of the key issues facing Scotland’s agricultural sector and its rural communities, set in the context of current policy drivers in Scotland, including community empowerment, land reform and inclusive growth.

Dr Paul Swagemakers from the University of Galicia in Spain provided some comparative reflections on the changing nature of the dairy sector in Galicia and the Netherlands.

Finally, Professor Scott Prudham from the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto provided a historical account of the evolution of, and current challenges facing, the Languedoc wine sector.

Speakers and participants then engaged in a lively discussion covering issues ranging from the role of cooperatives in wine production, environmental degradation, the importance of understanding the reasons for a range of different behaviours such as xenophobia and voting patterns, the future of the LEADER approach in the UK post-Brexit, and the importance of taking a historical perspective to understand current situations.

The session demonstrated the breadth of perspectives that can be taken to explore Brexit, from quantitative, economic approaches reviewing potentially different spatial and sectoral impacts, to more qualitative, social considerations exploring the behaviour changes of farmers and rural residents. The session also revealed that, although Brexit is often viewed as a unique situation, farmers and wider rural businesses and communities across Europe are dealing with the implications of policy changes and there may be learning that can be shared.


This blog was originally posted on SRUC’s Rural Brexit Hub. Thank you to Jane Atterton and SRUC for permission to post it here.

What do arts practices bring to rural sociology? Reflections from ESRS Congress, Trondheim

What do arts practices bring to rural sociology? Reflections from ESRS Congress, Trondheim

The CRE’s Dr Fran Rowe reflects on discussions held during a panel she convened with Dr Menelaos Gkartzios at the recent European Society for Rural Sociology Congress in Trondheim, Norway.

Encounters with artists and their contemporary arts practices proved a rich seam of enquiry and discussion at the recent Congress of the European Society for Rural Sociology in Trondheim, Norway. Hard on the heels of their recent rural arts research visit to Japan, Dr Menelaos Gkartzios and Dr Frances Rowe of the Centre for Rural Economy convened a working group at the Congress to explore contemporary arts practices and rural development. After an introductory presentation by Fran an invited panel, comprising Professor Mike Woods of Aberystwyth University, Professor Esther Peeren from University of Amsterdam, Natalie Leung from University of Austria and Professor Mike Bell from University of Wisconsin, offered contrasting interdisciplinary perspectives which led to a fascinating discussion.

First off, Mike Woods reminded us that artists and rural sociologists share an inquisitiveness about the rural, an interest in differing rural narratives and an orientation toward working with communities to enact change. He argued that rural sociologists and artists could be seen to embrace an action research practice. This is exemplified by the artists’ residency programme run by the Centre for Rural Economy, in collaboration with Berwick Visual Arts in Northumberland, North East England and Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice. Work by artist Sander Van Raemdonck, for example, has used a walking arts practice to engage communities and planning professionals in issues of housing development in the Spittal peninsular in Berwick (as discussed in a recent paper here).

The use of space outside the art museum or gallery, with artists engaging communities through their creative practices can provide fertile ground to challenge assumptions about the rural and raise fresh questions. Mike drew on his recent experience of working with The Whitechapel Gallery’s Rural initiative and artists’ collective Myvillages, to emphasise that artists bring a creative palimpsest of methods for interrogating issues as broad as ageing in rural communities exploring the expressive, or more than human dimensions of rurality.

Esther Pereen’s research exploring the cultural imaginations of the rural across five continents brings a fresh lens on contemporary rurality and how it is represented in popular culture. Frequently the well-worn stereotypes of an idyllic and unchanging rurality persist and can prove remarkably obdurate. This tendency can persist in how artists, via commissions and residences, are expected to ‘give rural communities what they want’, rather than giving space to aesthetic responses to rural issues and places that are emergent and uncertain, and sometimes challenging to rural communities, as Frances Rowe found in her PhD research into three contemporary arts organisations in England and Scotland.

Natalie Leung’s research exploring farmers’ reactions to specific artworks in a mountainous rural region experiencing an ageing population and widespread land abandonment, is discovering how farmers ‘use’ encounters with artworks via the Echigo Tsumari Art Field help them to make sense of their own identities through experiences of working the land. For example, for some farmers art has helped them to express an open-minded acceptance of change and that nature inevitably takes over when people leave, whereas for others, art inspires them to continue farming, reaffirming the values of their relationships to the land and contributing to rural resilience.

Finally, Mike Bell shared some music played by his group Graminy (listen to an example here!). Combining artistry with rural sociology, Mike’s compositions have emerged from a collaboration with arts organisation The Worm Farm Institute that explores the role of fermentation in food, helps to surface in a different way issues of global importance such as climate change, and engages people in conversations about them in non-confrontational ways. This approach may go some way towards circumnavigating the contested binaries of climate acceptance and denial that are so prevalent in the US today (and manifesting themselves elsewhere.)

The discussion following the presentations extended the contours of the conversation, for example to hear about how theatre has helped to surface issues of neighbourhood planning and power relations in communities in North East England, to the limitations and realities of community engagement in high profile art festivals in Japan, to the challenges and opportunities of using creative practices as sources of data in academic journals. It is hoped that collaboration in this growing space of rural socio-cultural enquiry will continue to develop, with exciting possibilities for future research and knowledge exchange.

How should delivery of the UK Industrial Strategy Embrace Rural Economies?

In our latest blog, Professor Jeremy Phillipson and  Roger Turner (CRE Associate and Rural Economics Consultant), discuss how the UK Industrial Strategy can embrace rural economies.

Would it be sensible to have an Industrial Strategy that overlooks an economic contribution equivalent to the 10 leading cities after London? The answer is clearly no, but this would be the risk if rural areas were not fully incorporated into the development and delivery of the Industrial Strategy. England’s rural areas host over half a million registered businesses and many more unregistered ones,  employ 3.5 million people, and in 2017 generated a GVA (gross value added) of at least £246 billion. They are integral to regional economies, make a substantial contribution to the vitality of their urban neighbours, and sustain communities of over 9.5 million people.

Thankfully, Industrial Strategy policy makers and rural stakeholders have been working hard to ensure that the strategy embraces our rural economies and places. Most recently this was boosted by a major workshop on the rural contribution to the Industrial Strategy, hosted by Rural Enterprise UK at Newcastle University in March.

As we move into the next pivotal stage of delivery, more than ever the contributions of rural areas to supporting growth and productivity need to be universally supported and embraced across Industrial Strategy processes and measures. Our team’s analysis of the Government’s own small business data is challenging assumptions that rural economies lack dynamism, perform less well, or are simply dependent on urban growth. Rural economies have untapped potential – for example around twice as many rural firms report having goods or services suitable for exporting than those which currently export. Rural areas are also at the forefront of major socio-economic trends such as an Ageing Society and Clean Growth – two of the Strategy’s Grand Challenges.

So how can rural representatives and other stakeholders ensure that Local Industrial Strategies are as relevant, accessible and visible to rural as to city and urban areas? How can the Strategy’s Grand Challenges be converted from grand and society–wide challenges to regional and local opportunities for rural areas?

These questions were tackled at the workshop by a unique gathering of expertise. Bringing together stakeholders from literally across the UK – from the Isles of Scilly in the south to Shetland in the north – the event gained insights from leaders in government-sector organisations, sub-national agencies and partnerships, business and community organisations, researchers from Newcastle University’s National Innovation Centres for Ageing and Data, and those of us long-engaged in researching small-medium enterprises (SMEs) and rural economies.

It was clear in our discussions that all of the Industrial Strategy’s features and foundations are also drivers of rural productivity or growth. Each raises long-standing and distinct rural challenges and prospects that require attention, which play out differently across the diversity of rural places, yet often remain underexplored or underutilised.  A short report from the workshop and further info is available here.

In summary, participants highlighted several prerequisites if rural contributions to the Industrial Strategy are to be fully realised:

  • Meaningful sub-regional devolution of Industrial Strategy measures coupled with local co-developed solutions and capacity building to enable local ‘place’-defined delivery.
  • Strengthened engagement of micro and small enterprises in developing and delivering Industrial Strategy measures and sector deals, with bolstered commitment to involving rural businesses.
  • Improved networking and representation of rural firms to generate strategic thinking, leadership and collaboration.
  • Enrolment of rural economies as leading lights or test beds for ideas and innovation linked to the Grand Challenges.
  • Appropriate metrics, indicators and investment thresholds for defining rural outcomes and measuring success.
  • Enhanced evidence, sensitive to local diversity in drivers, needs and opportunities, so that Local Enterprise Partnerships and other stakeholders are better equipped to embed rural contributions in local industrial strategies, sector and area growth deals.

One of our own highlights of the day was to hear a senior Defra official welcome this occasion as a rare event at which the main Department ‘talking rural’ was not the government’s own rural champion Defra, as is normally the case, but instead a host of leading contributions from other government departments, especially BEIS, MHCLG, DFT, DFE, Scotland Office etc[1]. Indeed, in his keynote presentation, Sam Lister, the Director of Industrial Strategy, made the case for respecting rural as an equal partner in the UK’s future economies. Both interventions say a lot about the positive progress made by both departments in considering the rural reach of the Strategy and the contributions of many stakeholders who have worked to enhance recognition of rural areas and their economies. Many participants welcomed this new recognition and shared space. Continuing this shared endeavour is more essential than ever, and at Newcastle University we are keen to help to extend this dialogue and convert ‘talking rural’ into visible and valued actions for the future.


[1] Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Ministry Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Department for Transport (DFT) and Department for Education (DFE)

Natural capital: Labelling, transparency and the true cost of food

In our latest blog, Senior Lecturer in Agribusiness Dr Diogo Souza Monteiro talks about his participation in the Oxford Meetings on Food System Impact Valuation, and the growing need to change food consumption habits in order to preserve natural capital.

The Oxford Meetings on Food System Impact Valuation, hosted by Dr. John Ingram, leader of the food program at Oxford University Environment Change Institute, joins academia, businesses, governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations to work on Natural Capital Valuation and its implications. Now in its third year, the focus of 2019 was to capitalise on the forward momentum on the methods and initiatives already in place to evaluate natural capitals. I was fortunate to attend and lead sessions at the third meeting, held on the 15 and 16th of April.

Food System Impact Valuation Meeting

Before I highlight some of the main initiatives discussed, it is worth recapping how we have arrived at discussions surrounding natural capital and its implications. Although not new, there is an emerging debate in policy and business communities surrounding how to manage the effects of climate change on human societies. The 1983 Brundtland report “Our Common Future” defined ‘sustainable development’ and highlighted the need to reconcile human activities with the natural environment and biosphere that supports our societies. However, only now is there a sense of urgency and an increasing consensus that, if we (as a society) persist in our current paradigm, large parts of the earth may no longer be habitable for future generations.

In order to mitigate the impacts of human activity on our planet, we need to be able to identify, understand, measure and manage those activities and their consequences which contribute towards climate change. In particular, food production and consumption are heavily dependent on natural resources. Therefore, there are several groups developing and implementing frameworks to evaluate the impact of different food sectors in the natural environment – hence the importance of the Oxford Meetings.

Since the concept of natural capital has been clarified, several organisations have developed frameworks and methodologies to measure this for both countries and businesses, such as the Natural Capital Coalition protocol. Additional sustainability frameworks have been developed that reflect a growing awareness of other capitals. These more holistic accounts of capital take into account natural, human, social and economic (manufacturing and financial) capitals in human activities. These “true cost” protocols are particularly pertinent in relation to food, such as those proposed by the Sustainable Food Trust or the FReSH true cost of food program. The purpose of these is to inform public and corporate policy and investment decisions, the latter used to identify the risks of different activities and their revenue streams. Moreover, they will impact our individual behaviour as consumers, including the discouragement of the consumption of products with high impacts on nature. Most discussions at the Oxford Meeting centred on the need for harmonisation of these true cost account frameworks and, more importantly, on how these can be used to support consumer decisions and promote dietary change.

Lady Margaret Hall – the conference venue

As part of the meeting, participants were divided in groups to discuss emerging issues on several themes including standardisation, finance, public policy and research projects. I led discussions in one of the public policy sessions, focusing on how the principles and methods of true cost accounting can inform policy promoting the use of food labels to increase transparency and foster consumer behaviour change. Examples of labels designed to help consumers make more informed choices in relation to some dimension of natural impact include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label in wood and paper products and the Rainforest Alliance label in foods.

However, there are several issues with these that were discussed during the session. Firstly, not all labels are equal or transparent surrounding the claim(s) they are communicating, and they do not necessarily take into account the true costs of the activities they are promoting. Another issue is that not all labels resonate with the consumer, with one participant highlighting that most consumers make choices solely based on price, meaning a label on a more expensive product that might reflect the true cost of production will not be chosen by most consumers.

Finally, the proliferation of labels communicating some dimension of sustainability — often with conflicting messages — makes choices difficult for consumers. This does, however, highlight an opportunity to develop a comprehensive label underpinned by sound food standards and true costs accounting methods for products in a given sector. If supported through policy to ensure a mandatory label, products with higher true costs of production would not be able to be carry lower prices. However, we are far from a consensus on methodologies and frameworks to determine what the true costs of a food product are, and the discussion session concluded that it is premature to propose such a label. Also, implementing mandatory labels based on true cost principles will be controversial and the charging the true cost of food may have important welfare and equity implications that need to be taken into account.

Labelling and underlying food standards are topics where there is growing expertise in CRE and SNES. For example, Dr Luca Panzone has done significant contributions to our understanding of the impact of carbon footprint labels on consumer choice. I have examined whether nutrition labels drove product reformulation and how alternative ways to convey diet information motivated consumer behaviour. CRE is therefore well positioned to continue to play a role in this important and urgent agenda.

Cultural Models of Nature

PhD student Chisaki Fukushima talks about her experience of working for the Cultural Models of Nature project, and highlights key concepts from this that she will use in her doctoral research.

Cultural Models of Nature (CMN), a project funded by the U.S. National Sciences Foundation between 2011 and 2016, endeavoured to understand the cultural models of primary food producers around the world – their collective mental systems and processes as well as models of knowledge transfer and use.  Findings from the project have now been summarised in a book of the same name, to which my mentor Dr. Hidetada Shimizu and I contributed a chapter.

Cultural Models of Nature book

A key goal of the project was to compare CMNs on a global scale, particularly in terms of climate change. All project collaborators who contributed to the book report that primary food producers are struggling with the effects of climate change.  These producers perceived it to be affecting their livelihoods in different ways. Sometimes its impacts were direct, such as changes in weather patterns, temperature and storms (including flooding), and sea level rises.  Other times they were more indirect, for example market price turmoil – a result of equipment or oil price fluctuations and political manipulation. In complex economic and political systems, primary food producers struggle to understand not only what happens in these systems, but how to cope with the issues present.

Nature (with a lowercase ‘n’) – defined in this project as natural objects, environments and others — is the longest and strongest relationship for humans. Scientists and philosophers learn about nature from a careful examination of people’s livelihoods and subsistence patterns as there is always a relationship between cultural ideas of Nature (with an uppercase ‘N’) and any group dependent on nature for their livelihood ( i.e. all humans). The natural environment we see has already been permanently changed by humans. Human-aggravated disasters are affecting not only current, but also future generations. Therefore, we must focus on learning what humans know and understand to help them adapt to this new, harsher reality. The CMN scholars in this volume seek to understand decision making through clear and consistent mental models shared across a group, while also reflecting on cognitive models of the world. Specifically, ethnographers involved in this collection reject the notion that primary food producers are a ‘problem’ of irrational thinking and instead see their decision making as logical.

This addresses profound epistemological questions about what we can know about others. CMN tells us to open our eyes and look at the available evidence from people’s existence and livelihoods through discourse analysis, observation, and experimental data production and analysis. The different sites generated data from mixed and inter-subjective cultural analysis, borrowing from psychology and anthropology in order to produce data about primary food producers’ knowledge. This approach assumes there is an isomorphism, or similar process to do with what people say and what they know. This knowledge system recognizes cognition as central to individual decision making and attempts to formally describe what people know and the relationship between elements of their knowledge, or ‘folk knowledge’.

In the chapter I co-authored with Hidetada Shimizu, we introduced two key concepts that are integral to local cultural models of nature[1]. A study of Japanese farmers found particularly high salience (or importance) of Human Relationships in those two narratives regarding risk supported by more than two analyses.

Japanese farmers experienced the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s along with the post-war social infrastructure such as land consolidation and technological development. They are well educated and knowledgeable, use modern technology, and enjoy an independent middle-level income that relies on robust management skills.  However, their collective peasant value of ‘Hyaku-sho’ community structure is still critical to their production and is very similar to what it was twenty years ago. It is therefore not only the nature of each agent that is important but also the relationships between agents. Social networks are particularly critical for managing risks from labour shortages, market price fluctuations, succession of the family business and coping with climate change. For the primary food producers included in the study, their success strategy emphasised overcoming risk, threats, and eliminating elements that might negatively affect their products. The entity which we can understand as ‘social relation’ almost appears to be one social organism – a kind of human eusociality.

The other narrative articulates the idea that crops are not just ‘products’, but are provided by the mercy of a holy nature and are a personified risk. This came through in a detailed study of the use of metaphor and semantic causal analysis. For example, farmers claim that they cannot control what nature does to them since nature is like humans, who make mistakes, and humans themselves are part of nature. Nature is personified both as something that can provide things, as well as a systemic relationship of components that includes people. It is possible that this is a result of the fusion of secular Buddhism and indigenous animism, but at present, we lack the evidence to make such a claim. It is, nevertheless, something I would like to explore in the future.

These two narratives are echoed across other sites in the project, and it is fascinating to see the differences and similarities between them. These may be the result of different environments, cultural histories, religions, economic policies, citizenship or, more likely, a complex interaction of all of these and other factors. The two narratives that we focus on in our chapter see risk as one of the attributes of nature, but humans as the ones who experience the consequences of that risk. Since humans face the consequences, they are responsible for managing risk. Successful risk management allows people to find Ikigai (the purpose/value of life) through a belief in surviving difficulties like economic crisis, climate change and natural disasters.

The work I did for Cultural Models of Nature with my mentor, Dr Hidetada Shimizu, was rewarding and profoundly inspiring. I am now continuing this work in my doctoral research, titled ‘Cultural Models of Risk’. I will extend the work I did with Dr. Shimizu to understand belief systems and cultural perceptions of the risk of radiation in food and in a nuclear host community.

[1] The original data belongs to Dr Hidetada Shimizu (Northern Illinois University).


Brexit: How might UK Agriculture Thrive or Survive?

A report released earlier this week by CRE’s Carmen Hubbard provides a detailed analysis of how the UK agriculture may be affected by Brexit. Working with colleagues from the Scottish Rural College, Agri-food & Biosciences Institute and a range of stakeholders, the report looks at all aspects of agriculture across all parts of the UK.

The UK agri-food sector will be one of the most seriously affected by Brexit. Not only is it dependent on trade relations both with the European Union and with the Rest of the World, but it is also a sector dependent on migrant labour, and the most heavily subsidised and regulated under the present Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The research shows that under selected trade scenarios the impact of Brexit on UK agriculture will be far from uniform. The trade scenario effects depend on the net trade position, and/or world prices. Under a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, agricultural impacts are relatively modest. By contrast, unilateral removal of import tariffs (UTL) has significant negative impacts on prices, production and incomes. Adoption of the current EU’s WTO tariff schedule for all imports (including those from the EU) favours net importer sectors (e.g., dairy) and harms net exporter sectors (e.g., sheep).

These trade effects, however, might be overshadowed by the foreign exchange rate and possible labour market changes and other non-tariff barriers.

Given the dependence of many UK farms on CAP direct payments, their removal, predictably, worsens the negative impacts of new trade arrangements and offsets positive impacts. Indeed, the elimination of direct payments will affect most farm businesses, but the magnitude varies significantly by enterprise and devolved administration.

The research shows differences in effects at farm and sector level, implying that although the agricultural industry can survive and adapt there is likely to be considerable hardship for individuals, families and businesses.

Changes in the agricultural industry could have more far reaching effects in other sectors, such as food processing.

Changes in land use may relieve environmental pressures, for example in areas experiencing over grazing, but could increase risks of pollution in others. Consideration will be needed for policies to manage any transition.

The Westminster and devolved governments may need to consider the implications of such changes for people, the food supply, land use and the countryside, and their responses and policy approaches to managing this may vary.

However, uncertainty during negotiations regarding the Withdrawal Agreement has been (and continues to be at the time of writing) a major problem, making it extremely difficult for farmers and the agri-food industry to plan for the future.

Read the report in full here.


This blog originally appeared on the Northern Rural Network Site, written by Paul Cowie.

Academia, policy and practice – How can we ensure our research findings make a difference?

Adrienne Attorp and Beth Clark summarise what they learned about policy making from Professor David Freshwater during his recent visit to the CRE.

This February, the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) was lucky enough to receive a visit from Professor David Freshwater of the University of Kentucky. While here, he spent an afternoon with CRE PhD students and early career researchers, and spoke to us about his work as a researcher and policy analyst in the field of rural and agricultural policy, which has included many years working as a consultant for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He also shared with us his thoughts and reflections on farming, including what he thinks are the biggest challenges facing the industry, and imparted some words of wisdom to those of us interested in working to influence policy. Some highlights:

The Challenges facing Farming

According to Professor Freshwater, policy is the biggest threat to agriculture because it is in a constant state of flux. This observation could not be timelier for a UK-based audience given the imminent arrival of Brexit and the looming threat of a ‘no deal’ exit, or a last-minute announcement of tariffs. Brexit aside, given the short-term focus of politicians that accompanies short stints in power and party changes, and the lack of overall strategy, it is not surprising to find that this makes longer-term planning difficult for farmers.

We also discussed the structure of farming and farm income, with farm support moving away from direct payments in a number of instances towards a more risk management-based approach. This reflects a need to change the approach to payments as a country and its economy develop. Related to this, Professor Freshwater highlighted the need for diversification, citing off-farm income sources as a means of risk mitigation. While some would portray this as a negative narrative as it suggests the farm is not a profitable entity without a separate source of income, Professor Freshwater offered a different perspective, arguing that a portfolio of uncorrelated income sources can in fact provide more resilience in an ever-changing climate. He pointed out that most households are multi-income, so why not farming households also?

How to Influence Policy Making

Politics precedes policy (and audience matters!)

“If you want to change policy, you have to talk to politicians”, Professor Freshwater told us. He also underscored that in order to influence policy effectively, researchers must “be immersed in the politics of [their] time”. Why? Because it is essential to understand both the context in which policymakers are working and the agendas they have, in order that research can fit into this context and align with current political values. This does not mean ‘selling out’, so to speak, it just means it is important to think about how you frame the problem and potential solutions, so as to make the most impact. Audience matters.

In addition, Professor Freshwater highlighted that policy can struggle with the unique. Generalizable findings and recommendations are much more suited to political interests. Thus, it is important to consider the smallest number of variations a policy may have while still being effective. He also stressed the need to ensure that any policy suggestions are both cost and outcome effective.

Further, similar to the pressures farmers contend with, the time constraints faced by policymakers make implementing long-term change difficult. With changes to political parties happening every four-to-five years or less, planning in two-year periods is often more feasible, with short-term recommendations more likely to be implemented.

Tell a story

Anecdotes and stories make policy impacts real, we learned. In policymaking, this is where qualitative research comes into its own. These anecdotes and stories should form part of your overall narrative on a subject, but crucially, we must always back them up with statistics. Furthermore, once you have your narrative, stick to it. Never contradict yourself!

Some final pearls of wisdom…

To be effective outside of academia there is a need to avoid the ‘tunnel vision’ that academics so often have, and to have an overview (even a not very in-depth one) of other disciplines. (This is evidently a strength of the CRE, given the diverse expertise of staff and students, not to mention the broad range of collaborators that we have and continue to work with.)

And finally, Professor Freshwater made a plug for theory, emphasising that, by approaching research from a theoretical perspective, researchers can be deductive, as well as uniform in their approach to comparing and evaluating different policy alternatives. This subsequently provides rigour to their work.

So, what are the take-home messages? Other than the need to ensure we keep an open mind and read more broadly, we came away with a number of key points for preparing a policy brief:

  • Create and tell a story about why your research is important
  • Provide evidence of the impacts of what you are recommending
  • Be consist in telling this same story to different people
  • Consider how generalizable your findings are

Many thanks to Professor Freshwater for helping the CRE’s early career researchers expand their research arsenal. Watch out policy world!