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29.9.14 How farmers’ perception of climate change alters how we communicate

29th Sep 2014

So as part of this month’s theme of looking at attitudes towards climate change, I thought that I would look at what the social scientists have done in terms of research around farmer attitudes and how this shapes how the messages are communicated. This has involved delving into a subject that I haven’t had many dealings with before, surrounding how you quantify behaviour change and
attitudes towards things.

However before we start, I will just first offer some reassurance that I am not going to spend this blog trying to explain the complicated world of social science, but merely look at some of the results that have come from the clever people and places who have asked the questions.

The decision making process

If we look at the general population, in going about their daily lives, people generally do what they have done, what impulse tells them to do or what their neighbours or friends do even when this might not be the most beneficial option for them. The decision making process is complicated. I myself am guilty of putting things off that I don’t want to do and doing all the things that are easy first, or eating a chocolate biscuit when I know that I really shouldn’t. The decision making process for farmers is inherently more complicated as there are numerous factors at work. And when we include climate change in the mix it becomes more complicated again as it is such an important factor in profitability. Climate is the primary determinant of agricultural productivity, and therefore changes in the climate influence many components of agricultural systems, including crop and livestock production, input supplies, soil quality and water supply.

Climate change threatens the long term capacity of food production through increased soil erosion and reduced soil fertility. The certainty of an increased need for food to feed a burgeoning global population and the uncertainty of the short and long term effects of climate change on agriculture combined make efforts to enhance the resilience of agricultural systems a top societal priority. If policy makers, climate scientists and advice programmes are to effectively support farmer adaptation to climate change then farmer’s attitudes towards climate change must be understood.

Put simplistically, for successful policies to help us adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change, farmers need to be concerned about climate change and understand the vulnerability of their business to changing weather patterns. It is probably a good idea at this point to clarify the difference between adaptation and mitigation in terms of effects on behaviour.


Adaptation in this context refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change. It is much more related to actual threats from the climate and the adaptation of management practices to deal with their effects.


Mitigation (in a climate change context) means implementing policies on-farm that are directly related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or improving the level of carbon sequestered in the natural environment (trees, soils, hedgerows etc).

In terms of adjustments of farmer behaviour, adaptation is all about changing due to perceived vulnerability (risk management), whereas mitigation is more about acknowledging that human activity (including agriculture) is a cause of climate change and developing management strategies
to reduce those.

Some studies around the world.

American data

The data below comes from an American study based in Iowa. This region (sometimes referred to
the Corn Belt) contains some of the most fertile agricultural land in the
world. Whilst it only occupies a fraction of US farmland, it produces over half of all US corn and soybean. As a state, it has experienced extreme weather events that have had adverse impacts on agricultural production and the natural resource base.

The data below summarises what they found when they interviewed 1,300 farmers from Iowa. To read the full paper click here.

  • 68% indicated that they believe climate change is happening

  • 10% attributed climate change mostly to human activities

  • 35% believed that climate change is occurring and caused equally by human activities and natural variation

  • 23% attributed climate change primarily to natural causes

  • 28% of farmers indicated uncertainty

  • 5% of people did not believe that climate change is happening

English data

A study by Wiles et al in 2012 (full text here) looked at farmer’s perceptions of climate change and found that:

  • The impacts of climate change are not seen as a pressing threat, nor are extreme weather events regular enough for the majority of farmers to invest time and resources into taking immediate action. Farmers are working to prevent the impacts of short term impacts and maximise opportunities rather than mitigate long-term risks.

  • The majority of farmers are sceptical about long term projections of climate change noting they are confusing lacking consistency and clarity. Instead farmers are likely to take actions based on their own perception of short term variations in weather.

  • There is a disconnect between understanding climate change and taking action to mitigate that change. Lack of government support, information and financial incentives to take action are all noted as key factors.

  • Farmers of necessity are first and foremost focused on profit and performance management of their farms, hence any incentive to take action will need to make sense financially.

  • Scottish Data

    In Scotland as part of a national project evaluating factors influencing farmers’ attitudes and behaviours towards climate change, 550 farmers were interviewed.

    • 50% of respondents believed that average annual temperature will increase in the future

    • 32% agreed that climate change will only impact negatively in the long term

    • 16% were receptive to adopting practices which would reduce emissions

    This work also looked at the different sets of factors that influence decision making, grouped into 4 categories – economic, external, internal and social.


    Economic factors

    Market volatility – agricultural systems are dynamic, since
    producers and consumers are continuously responding to changes in crop and
    livestock yields, food prices, input prices, resource availability and advances
    in technology.

    Economic motivation – only once economic condition had been
    satisfied , could land managers focus on other priorities.

    Whether or not to participate in economic schemes – economic
    considerations are acknowledged to be the primary driving force behind
    participation (along with fit with existing farm management).

    Issues relating to non-profitable farming systems – to maintain
    high nature value sites.


    External factors

    Capacity to change – regardless of how willing the farmer is
    to alter their management practices, they must also have the capacity to

    Farm size and type – including the theory that larger
    farmers are more likely to participate in schemes, some research has suggested
    that farm type is a more significant factor than size.

    Farmer demographics – a massively complex issues that spans
    subjects including age, tenancy status, education level etc

    Internal factors

    Attitudes, values and beliefs – again massively complex
    issues which ranges from perceived threat level from effects of climate change
    to risk management.

    Social factors

    This section deals with the fact that attitudes and
    behaviours don’t take place in a vacuum, but are influenced by the social
    content in which they occur.  Decisions
    are affected by the views and behaviours of their peers and neighbours as well
    as other family members and society at large. 
    Also included in this category is the whole area surrounding decision
    making on the farm.  There is evidence to
    suggest that in larger complex farm businesses, in particular, decision making
    is spread among family and non-family members.


    So what does this all mean in terms of moving forward?

    Since farmers are influenced by their social networks, desired
    behaviours in the innovator / early adopter group need to be encouraged,
    endorsed and promoted.  Highlighting what
    farmers are doing to both adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change at
    the farm scale will help to encourage more to engage with the climate change
    agenda.  This will be discussed more next