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Why agriculture fails to take climate action

Abolish harmful support and subsidies, differentiate policy and communicate on-farm benefits, are some of the recommendations in a new report from OECD.

The OECD report “Overcoming barriers to the adoption of climate-friendly practices in agriculture”, begins by noting that the agricultural sector is not fulfilling its climate mitigation potential. By scanning the scientific literature, the authors have found eighteen barriers to the implementation of “climate-friendly” measures, both at farm level and at sector and policy level.
Out of these, eight are considered as high priority or relative priority “unless contradictory evidence is found in the relevant context” and they are:

At farm level    

  • Lack of financial benefits; effects on production
  • Cost of adoption
  • Hidden and transaction costs
  • Access to credit
  • Cultural and social capital

At sector and policy level

  • Effect of practices on production
  • Information and education
  • Limited extent of climate policy

It is easy to see that the different barriers are not so distinct but rather interact in a variety of ways; here follows a short review.

Financial benefits are found to be a strong driver for farmers to adopt new agricultural practices. For many mitigation measures (though not all) these private economic benefits carry the greatest incentive. However, in some cases there might financial benefits, but these are unknown to the farmer.  

Related and also of importance to the farmer is the cost of adoption. Some measures such as precision farming technologies require investments in specialised machinery, GPS systems and modifications to existing machinery. Even practices that do not involve capital costs may involve entry costs such as the cost of planting a cover crop.  

Another economic barrier is hidden transaction costs. Many farmers are time-constrained. Learning and adopting new management practices takes time. Taking part in different agro-environmental schemes can involve monitoring and paper work that also can be seen as a hidden cost. Many of these costs are independent of the size of the farm, which means they are of particular importance for small farms.

Access to credit is the final economic barrier of importance, especially for measures that imply initial investments. There is also another side to it. Measures that are associated with lower yields may have a negative effect on the relationship with lenders.

Cultural and social capital is quite a different type of barrier. It is about farmers’ strong identification with the job, the farm, the land and the animals. This identity comes along with status in the community as well as social and cultural capital. Obviously, farmers will be reluctant to any change that may threaten this paradigm. For example, in some countries farmers are sceptical of woodland planting; reflecting a big cultural divide between farming and forestry.

Many farmers also display “deeply embedded psychological and moral reasons for focusing on food production”. Measures that will result in lower yields are likely to threaten the concept of what is a good farmer. The existence of this phenomenon is shown by farmers being more likely to adopt certain measures if their neighbours have a positive attitude towards the practice, and they are likely to keep on adopting such practices if the neighbours are also determined to do so.

At policy and sector level there is also concern about production levels. This applies in particular to countries where agriculture is an important part of the economy and it is common that their focus shift towards efficiency i.e. reducing emissions per unit of product. The authors argue that though efficiency certainly is part of the solution there is a great risk that the emissions saving achieved will be offset by increased production.

Opponents will then lift the argument of carbon leakage – if we introduce environmental standards, these products will be produced somewhere with laxer regulation and emissions will just move to another country. In line with this the New Zealand government have stated that they will only regulate biological emissions if there are technological measures available and international competitors also take sufficient action. However, there is mixed evidence to what degree carbon leakage actually happens. One study showed that if agriculture was to be part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union by 19.3 per cent, but emissions in the rest of the world would increase by only 6 per cent.

We know today that information is not enough for people and institutions to take rational environmental action. But lack of information will still work as a barrier. In two studies from Scotland and Spain it was for instance found that a deficit in information and education was a barrier to farmers adopting certain practices, such as growing nitrogen-fixing crops to reduce the need for artificial nitrogen fertilisers.

There is also an issue of how information is framed and from whom it is provided. The authors suggest a positive approach focusing on empowering farmers to take climate action to avoid defensive reactions. Communicating on-farm benefits and showing case role models in the farming community has proven to be a successful method.

The presence and structure of farm advisory services vary between countries. For instance, in some countries, the fertiliser industry is the main provider of information to farmers. It does not have to be said that they normally have other priorities that come higher than climate mitigation.

Then there is the issue of policy, or rather the absence of policy. The report highlights the lack of explicit references to agriculture in international climate policy – most recently in the Paris Agreement.

This could act as an indirect barrier to agriculture mitigation practices, in that it does not encourage countries to take action in this area.

At national level it is also uncommon to have policy instruments that specifically target greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. One reason for this is the inherent complexity of the sector, with heterogeneous large and small businesses that are based on uncertain biological systems. However, without policy incentives, farmers are unlikely to implement measures that are not profitable in the relatively short term. The report suggests that the way forward is differentiated policy, which considers farmers’ different local conditions and motivations for change.

Another problem is poor policy coherence. Policy that is designed to support production, such as subsidies and tax exemptions, often works directly in opposition to climate mitigation. One example is electricity and grain subsidies in India that lead to both ground water overdraft and greenhouse gas emissions. The report recommends countries to decouple the support from production and consider conditioning support based on environmental performance.

Finally, the OECD urge countries to embrace a systematic approach by mapping, prioritising and removing barriers, before designing new policy. It should not be that difficult.

Kajsa Pira

Source: “Overcoming barriers to the adoption of climate-friendly practices in agriculture” by OECD



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