Valuing Farmland Ecology
How might we better value biodiversity, ecological heath and ecosystem services in our agrifood system?
Part Two of an interview with Professor Stefanie Engel, Framework WP6 Lead
Q. You’ve given us a great overview of the challenges and possibilities that Framework WP6 is focused on.
Why do you think that our food system is hard to change?
What successful strategies of change have you encountered and perhaps implemented in your career?
It's a very good question! I think one likely reason is that the sector is very highly and effectively organised and has a very strong lobbying power that resists change. And in many countries, I mean, this is a picture, I suppose, effect in many countries. The agricultural sector has their own ministry showing a long tradition of influence and the interests of conventional agriculture, you could say, are those disproportionately represented in policymaking compared to other sectors. And as such, it's not surprising that, for example, the EU emission trading, even though it's now planning a plan to be extended to other sectors, does not include the agricultural sector.
Nevertheless, I think this Common Agricultural Policy budget, this large amount of subsidies that are available and that are spent from taxpayers money every year is so large that it could really serve as a lever for change. If it was redirected more systematically towards promoting the provision of public goods and services that society values. So more towards climate mitigation, biodiversity conservation, diverse landscapes, I see huge potential in there for this because we do have these funds and we can use these available funds for this purpose. I think that needs to be complemented also with changed training for farmers. That includes this production of ecosystem services and also with increasing decision competence for consumers. For example, through environmental education already in schools along these lines, but also environmental awareness campaigns about the impacts.
A lot of people are not aware of how strong is the influence of the agricultural sector on climate, on biodiversity and so on.
And also, for example, through a unified and more transparent labelling system that consumers can use then to base their decisions on - I have more recently started working on this. Also, when you look at the transformation that we really need - because we need more than just marginal changes - we need really a transformation and that requires more than changing external incentives. I think changing these external incentives, adapting these subsidies is a very, very important part. But the transformation also requires changing internal mindsets, mindsets of farmers, mindsets of consumers, mindsets of retailers.
We all need to realise that our focus on on short-term benefits undermines our own longer term livelihoods in very dramatic ways. And I think we need to realise that we are all part of the problem and we can all be part of the solution.
And when you think more about that, I think a very important issue is collective efficacy. So what do I mean by that, whether we are consumers or whether we are farmers? We often see ourselves as victims of the circumstances, and we think that our own behaviour alone will not make a difference, right? That's a classic public goods problems where everyone has an incentive to free ride on others and think that what I do will not make a difference. But together, we can change the system!
And I think participatory approaches, which I started on or working on more recently, also with my team, can help to achieve such a shift in mindsets.
The Farmer Clusters that we work on Framework, they bring farmers together to develop joint strategies and with a facilitator, which can help to really create a feeling of yes, together, we can really make a change now, while every farmer individual might, might feel like, well, me alone, what can I do? There are now more and more multi-stakeholder platforms that link consumers with producers and other interest groups. I think that's very important also to get to connect initiatives with each other and to again provide this feeling that there are many people wanting to make a change and getting out of this or blaming each other for not changing.
I think also very interesting approach along this line are citizen assemblies. There have been citizen assemblies on various issues, including ozone and climate change. And the idea is to really bring together a representative set of people from the broad population, so if you would do something like that on the agricultural transition, it would bring together consumers and farmers. And then the idea is to facilitate a deliberative process amongst this requisite representative sample of people and support really developing joint solutions. And it's really impressive what has come out of some of these processes in other policy rooms and how really people that seem to come from very different points of view came up with very, very good and really a consent also on solutions that were approached that were proposed. And that's very that can be very, very promising because it can also then shows a wider public that such consent on the way forward is possible and bring really concrete ideas on what such a joint strategy of the different interest groups could actually look like. It's just very important to design those processes in a good way and to make sure that they also then really have a role in the subsequent policy process. Otherwise, they are likely to just sort of dissipate and not have that much influence. But the general approach is very promising, and quite promising also for the agricultural topic.
Q. That's such a fabulous answer, and I feel like you kind of responded to the next question - what are the things that make you optimistic?
Well, I think the public awareness has really increased substantially over the past year, and that makes me to some degree optimistic. I think it's now widely accepted that business as usual is not really an option anymore, that we need to transition. I think it's now widely accepted amongst consumers, politicians and also farmers. I think most farmers realise that there has to be some change. And also, the EU countries have set goals for carbon emission reductions that include the agricultural sector. So it makes it costly to not comply. And I think this creates a real window of opportunity for change and pressure for change.
Also another point is what I mentioned already. This concept of Ecosystem services, I think has become kind of mainstream, and there have been a lot of these assessments that have shown quite well how sustainable practises and nature based solutions can save society a lot of costs and can provide really economic benefits. So I think that's also an issue that can make one hopeful and maybe a last one. Also, I think an important development is also the work that is going on on alternative welfare measures. Currently, as you, you know, most countries use GDP to judge how well they are doing, but that's a terrible measure of societal welfare. For example, it rises GDP rises with natural disasters because it counts only as a work put in, clean up and restoration, and it doesn't count the loss of natural capital. So there has been a lot of progress in devising better welfare measures. And I think such measures, if they would become more widely considered, could be a real motor for change also.
Q. You mentioned nature based solutions, something that the private sector is getting increasingly interested in. Are you excited by the current interest from the private sector?
Yes, to some degree, I think these private sector initiatives are promising in many ways, and the can play an important role, but one needs to distinguish a bit, I think first of all, I think it's important to have well-designed incentives in order to be effective. So they need to really create real incentives for farmers that also last over time. Actually, the tree planting is a good example where one can also see it can work, but also many times didn't work because incentives were not very well designed. And so it's important to design them well to learn from the lessons that have been learnt on that and also for equity reasons to maintain farmers independence is important.
I'm also a bit sceptical about purely technological or other add-on solutions that are sometimes promoted. I mean, just one example of this wildflower strips for insects are very helpful. But if put next to huge areas on which damaging damaging pesticides are used to, that effect is obviously limited!
I think overall, we need strategies that make agricultural systems more resilient and more diversified, and that requires more systemic or farm approaches that contribute to climate mitigation and biodiversity conservation and at the same time, also to climate adaptation, actually. And I think we need to support those types of more on the whole farm approaches. And I think both the private sector and the public sector can play very important roles in that.
Q. You spoke earlier about new kinds of participatory approaches that you're you're using on Framework.
Would you like to tell us a little bit more about the kinds of pilot schemes, research, and innovation activity that is happening within Framework WP6?
So on a broader scale the project really implements, as you know, these Farmer Clusters in many European countries and that's really a bottom up approach that brings together groups of farmers with a facilitator to develop joint strategies for biodiversity sensitive farming. That approach has been successfully implemented in the U.K., and I think it's a very promising approach.
At the same time, we need to understand it much better and we need to understand under which conditions it works well and what are also some barriers to its success and how we can overcome those barriers. Maybe one aspect of that that we are working on in work package six, is on farmer behaviour.
We are looking at the role of these incentive schemes for the success of these farmer clusters. For example, how should this these payment schemes that could be made conditional on group performance on coordination amongst farmers? How could they best be designed to really promote that farmers participate in such activities is an important research question that we work on, but we also work on a better understanding of the role of private incentives like labelling schemes, direct marketing, solidary farming. What is the role of those for farmers in joining these cluster approaches and in promoting or in adopting more biodiversity sensitive farming?
Also, colleagues are developing a DigiFarm game that uses virtual reality techniques to train farmers to monitor biodiversity on their farms in a kind of playful way. And I think that's also an interesting approach. Also, at a more project level. The project is developing in another work package, a decision support tool that visualises the production of ecosystem services. I think that could be very helpful to inform farmers, but also to motivate farmers by visualising ecosystem services, realising that there is something being produced besides the agricultural output.
Q. How do you actually work through these different possibilities?
It differs a bit amongst those of us implementing pilot schemes in various countries This cluster approach is being implemented and the facilitators are there and so on, and the joint strategies are being developed. Some of the things I mentioned, we will only test them in some of the clusters because we cannot overwhelm the clusters with lots and lots and lots of research activities. So some of the research is also going on in on non cluster farms to first really understand it better. For example, these results based payments, we will conduct experiments really to first better understand how such schemes should be designed before we actually think about what is the best thing then to implement.
Q. So before setting up a different incentive payments, for instance, in the CAP, do they carry out economic research in the field in the way that you're currently doing?
Or is that something that Framework, and projects like it, contribute to with their research?
I think it's an innovative approach that is very slowly spreading. We're actually part of a research network that has as an aim to promote the use of economic experiments in policy design and cultural sector, particularly for the Common Agricultural Policy. There is some interest there, and there has recently been a project that one of my team members, Fabian Thomas, has been involved in, were actually such an experiment has been conducted to guide policy making. So very, very slowly, this is spreading as an idea. Most of the policy design is still based on modelling and modelling is useful, but modelling also is very much shaped by the assumptions that are made. And the assumptions are often also past oriented, not because they have to look at what what has happened in the past.
And I think experiments, like on Framework, have promise for trying out new things and really testing in the field how they work. There would be a huge potential for using them more, actually, if there could be a collaboration between policy makers and researchers in this regard, a very promising area of research.
Q. Thanks Stefanie!
Conversation edited for clarity and format. Interview by Alexandra Georges-Picot.
Long-form blogs like this one are published on average monthly in line with the project communications plan.
All non-project images sourced from a copyright free content library.
Published by project knowledge exchange and communications partner Taskscape.
Have an additional blog or news bulletin to share via this channel? We’d love to release it! Get in touch on the CKP or email: firstname.lastname@example.org