Behavioural drivers key to agriculture’s sustainable transition

By Aditi Mankad, Emilie Roy-Dufresne, Ann Seitzinger, Anu KumarMay 24th, 2021

Seeing successful examples of sustainable practice change is critical for further uptake.

In the not too distant future agricultural systems will have to produce sufficient and nutritious food and fibre with fewer chemical inputs. However, while some solutions to reduce on-farm chemical use already exist, a reliance on chemicals to control agripests continues to endure due to beliefs about increased efficacy, efficiency, and productivity.

Such attitudes are often rooted in personal experiences and generational beliefs about “what works”. While there are agricultural enterprises that choose to diversify and reduce their dependence on chemicals, others consider it a risky gamble. This is particularly true for enterprises that may not have the labour, capital, or applied knowledge necessary to make changes or to withstand fluctuations in productivity during transitions.

Our behavioural research shows that shifting pest management practices requires not only an observable evidence base that demonstrates efficacy of alternative behaviours in achieving sustainable control goals. Change also requires recommendations to work on comparable farming systems, and to be easy to trial without being locked into a commitment.

For example, our research with groups of commercial fruit and vegetable growers examined intentions to carry out coordinated pest management behaviours for the control of Queensland fruit fly. We found that explicit knowledge of alternative behaviours and how to implement those behaviours (i.e. procedural knowledge) was more important in driving behaviour change than simply knowing that alternative behaviours existed (i.e. factual knowledge).

Other factors that we’ve found are important when trying to elicit behaviour change on-farm are:

  • Perceived threat and articulation of the problem (i.e., does your target group actually believe that there is a problem with the sustainability of controls being used in agriculture?);
  • Response efficacy, (i.e., does your target group believe that recommended behaviours will address the identified problem?).

Ultimately, it is not an insignificant request to ask farmers to adopt unfamiliar or untested practises. Individual growers and farming enterprises have no doubt spent years developing existing systems and routines that work best for their business and their land.

Therefore, farmers need to see a clearly articulated business case before they are willing to let go of familiar methods in favour of the transformative change now required. What’s more, people do not make decisions in the same way as each other. Everyone will make decisions about sustainability and risk in a way that is influenced by their unique social, psychological, and contextual factors.

An exploratory model of psychosocial factors influencing farmer decision-making for more sustainable agricultural practises, proposed by Mankad (2016).

Building a longer-term vision of profitability at the farm level

Agriculture has changed considerably over the last decades as it has worked to reduce risk. It has shown a remarkable capability to innovate in response to threats such as agripests, and climatic events such as droughts and cyclones.

However, those innovations have come with a cost. Shorter-term financial profits are often prioritised ahead of longer-term impacts that could promote more systemic change. To reach sustainability, more weight must be given to long-term stewardship of natural resources. Producers should also be alert to future risks such as product availability and more stringent regulation of their use.

By promoting a shift towards a longer-term vision of profitability, sustainable agriculture incorporates the notions of resilience, diversity, transformability, and adaptability in the farm’s management practices. It collectively creates and deploys new knowledge to enable farms to absorb and recover from increasingly complex and accumulating stresses while reducing the impact on the environment.

Australian sheep pest management has provided an example of how to progress towards more sustainable practices. Results of the program were improved through the use of small group extension with the commercial sector, and adoption of practices with learning delivered in smaller segments over time and with respect to seasonal labour demands while ascertaining that control costs were not the highest hurdle to adoption.

Another study examined producer decision-making from a longer-term investment perspective, rather than based on current price or yield motivations. Identified barriers to adoption included the need for increased equipment investment, as well as the behavioural aspects of greater learning costs.

We argue that social mechanisms are as important as the biological controls or alternative practises to pest management being recommended. Positive factors influencing acceptance include perceptions of increased market access, increased social awareness, utilising community champions and value chain actors to convey key messaging, as well as disseminating credible scientific evidence to target groups.

Important factors affecting behaviour change include trust in those advocating behaviour change and novel technological approaches, as well as interpersonal trust and social cooperation between neighbours.

In contrast, barriers to acceptance included perceptions of costs and ongoing funding needs, a lack of knowledge about novel approaches, and a lack of compatibility between recommended practises and current practises.

Australian sheep producers have led a drive to improve on-farm sustainability.

Policy measures to promote innovation strategies

New nationally-coordinated policies could be considered to establish sustainable intensification in farming systems. While remaining flexible for farm-specific issues, such measures would support substitutions in farm practices and inform broader, societal discussions on the direction and nature of the responses needed. They also promote multi-disciplinary research protocols and practices that integrate concerns about sustainability.

A journey from the late 1980s through to the present in Denmark illustrates how policy measures can motivate innovation by influencing behaviours. Changes to initial taxes on pesticide use were guided by revisions to metrics incorporating toxicity impacts in terms of environmental behaviour and environmental effects as well as on human health. Between 2011 and 2017, farm records show a 12-27 per cent reduction in pesticide use. Differing producer responses to the new tax were identified, with some farmers focusing more on prices and others who emphasised production.

This experience indicated producers’ decision-making would be more effectively influenced with a mix of policies. These could include differentiated taxes, subsidies, targeted insurance, and independent and reliable extension information where the producer has some ability to self-select options.

Perceived barriers and facilitators for behaviour change, as perceived by a segment of Australian fruit and vegetable growers (Mankad, Loechel & Measham, 2017).

Incentives and promotions for demonstrating a level of effort

Meanwhile, consumers are central to driving agricultural behaviour change through their purchasing habits.

Consumers create a market niche that highlights the need for changes to be adopted at the system level. This enables the conditions and sets the momentum required to maintain a long-term vision of agricultural sustainability. In addition, consumer endorsement of certification schemes drives investment in sustainable agriculture.

It is therefore important to develop initiatives that target these market and consumer values that support new technology options and practices. Successful efforts by food cooperatives in Switzerland through IP-SUISSE and by France’s Terrena to brand this substitution of lower pesticide impact production practices through to a higher retail return are leading examples of the supply chain innovations undertaken in the past decade.

Convening a national conversation

As technological advances in agripest control expand, the transition process towards sustainable agriculture will rely upon cooperation across the supply chain, from industry, consumers, policy makers, and R&D.

Key enablers include increased awareness of agripests and risks – both ecological and social – related to various control options through training and educational activities, leadership and local champions of change throughout the supply chain, credibility and meaningful consideration of the counter factual, and relations of trust and transparency between institutions.

In addition to these more generalisable attitudinal and behavioural factors, heterogeneity of farm enterprises across individual landholders and regions, and distinct farming cultures mean that different communities of practice will have inconsistent beliefs and reasons for using certain control practices.

Therefore, to successfully reach sustainability and to innovate in the face of uncertainty will require integrated efforts that consider the role of human behaviour and psychological drivers of decision-making in context-specific scenarios observed on the ground.

Evidence-based options, farmer-to-farmer learning, and opportunities for gaining procedural knowledge are critical elements in implementing sustainable agripest control practices.

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