Citizens’ Jury at the Scottish Parliament

A Citizens’ Jury was assembled to deliberate on a major topic of agriculture, land use and food security. They were to spend a weekend at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh from 29-31 March 2019. My role was to advise the jurors on current issues, answer questions and draw attention where necessary to reliable data.

Latest …. report and short film prepared by Scottish Parliament now available …. wide selection of online data sources collated on page 3 … see bottom of page for links 

The event was a reassuring experience – a group of people previously unknown to each other coming together, learning individually and together, absorbing complex issues and debating constructively, being courteous to each other and giving due weight to all opinions.

The Friday evening began with an explanation of the event – the jurors did not know the exact topic until then, other than it was to do with  ‘environment’ – and some insight from a visiting speaker on the need to judge reliable information, rather than hearsay and false news, when reaching conclusions .

Perhaps the most important result of the Friday evening was for the jurors to agree a set of rules as to how the discussions would be conducted. Simple guidelines such as ‘there should be no interrupting or talking over another person’ would have at one time seemed natural for such as event, but given the manner in which public argument is so often carried out, the jurors as a whole wanted to make it clear that the views of all should count and be heard.

The second day began with a series of talks, including the opener by me (see link to page 2 below), and  another from Kirsty Blackstock of the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen. At various times over the weekend, the jurors got the chance to discuss the main questions in three groups of 7 – 8  and also to raise points in general assembly. Each group had a facilitator whose role it was to guide the jurors without leading them down any one path. In an extended session on the Sunday, the jurors heard from and could question people who manage land (farmers, smallholders, etc.) or are responsible for governmental and private policy on land.

Those from the Scottish Parliament who ran the event had prepared well, notably in providing examples of the support given to agriculture and environment. Detailed case studies for Switzerland and Australian had been prepared as a base for comparison with the current (and the  future) position in Scotland.

The need for reliable information

It became clear over the weekend that a visiting specialist at an event like this needs to guard against personal opinion and bias. My view is that, despite irreversible change to land and vegetation since the retreat of the last ice, sustainable production is possible at the same time as restoring lost ecological function. ‘Sustainable’ here means continuing to produce food and other economic products from the land for a further few thousand years.

My (continued) view is that to achieve sustainable production needs major change, after which not all interests will be equally satisfied.  A more equal balance needs to be struck between the various outputs – drink and food, economic returns, soil and food webs, wider biodiversity and environment.

Agriculture has to return to producing most of the food eaten in the country, and this includes plant carbohydrate, protein and nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Agriculture cannot do this alone – it needs buy-in from people, government policy and the supply chains that connect it with markets, retail and consumers. Food production has in the recent past come into competition with feedstock industries and has generally lost because cheap, plant-based food can be imported.  As a result, the country would last months maybe, probably weeks, in the face of any serious blockade or natural calamity that prevented food imports.

Summary of data sources with links

Any solution for the future needs to take account of many sorts of information – on crops and livestock, economics, markets and supply chains,  on soil and other essential natural systems and on impending change in weather, climate, international markets and food policy. To advise on all this needs not only active research into production ecology and economics, but also familiarity with a very wide range of background information.

The types of data that typically consulted and analyse are summarised on a separate page (3 below).  The data are held mainly on government web sites (Scotland, UK, EU, etc.) and are generally downloadable free of charge. One of the great benefits of the web is that such information is now accessible. When I started work on the Scottish scene 25 years ago, you had to be based near a good technical library or else buy or beg hard copy through the post.

Topics include: the general environment in Scotland; agriculture, land area and crop yield; land use and soil; economics, imports vs exports, EU subsidy and greening; inputs such as fertiliser and pesticide; greenhouse gas emissions, weather and climate; land ownership; natural environment and biodiversity.

Opinions given at the event were based on previous careful sifting and analysis of such information together with research on the historical trajectories of agriculture and land use (which are more difficult to quantify but are increasingly made available though online libraries).

What happened next?

The people running the event at the Scottish Parliament have prepared a report of the event, published on 11 July 2019 and viewable at this link:  Scottish Parliament Citizens’ Jury on land management and the natural environment.

A short film is available at this link: Citizens’ Jury on land management.


Further pages

[2] Presentation by G R Squire at the Citizen’s Jury event 30 March 2019 (to be uploaded)

[3] Sources of information on agricultural census, land use, imports/exports, CAP and greenhouse gas emissions which outlines the range of data that should be examined before reaching conclusions of the current state of food security and environment.

[Article first online 4 July 2019, to be updated as new material becomes available; last update 5 February 2020 with new links at page 3]