153 – Best Management Practices (BMPs)

The term “Best Management Practice” is a pet gripe of mine. It is either intellectually sloppy or dishonest, depending on how you look at it. It is probably bad marketing too.

This week I reviewed a research paper from the US that focused on so-called “Best Management Practices” (or BMPs) for farmers. This reawakened my strong dislike of this term, which is widely used in North America and Australia to mean farm management practices that are good for the environment.

My first problem is that the term lacks intellectual rigour. For who or what are the practices best? Best for the environment, best for the farmer or best overall? In practice, the term is applied to conservation practices, but why should these qualify for the label “best”? A practice might be good for the environment but really terrible from the farmer’s perspective. It might even put the farmer out of business. Taking the farmer’s perspective (which might be appropriate in a program that is promoting actions to farmers!), it would make more sense to describe as “best” those practices that maximised net benefits for farmers. From a policy perspective it would be more defensible if “best” meant best overall, once you factored in public and private benefits and cost.

But even those options don’t really make sense in practice because there is so much spatial variability in bio-physical and socio-economic conditions. Which practice is actually “best” from any particular perspective will vary from case to case. (If you observe what farmers do, it varies widely from farm to farm and from field to field.) Whether you focus on the environmental perspective, the farmer’s perspective or the policy perspective, no land management practice deserves to be called “best” as a generalisation.

Even if we do focus solely on the environment, some of the available conservation practices are in competition with each other, and some obviously work better than others in particular situations, so they obviously can’t all be “best”.

It’s apparent that “BMP” is an attempt to market a product. It is trying to apply some sort of persuasive pressure on landholders: if you are a good farmer you should adopt these practices because they are “best”. It’s bordering on dishonest really. In the commercial world, there are laws against false advertising. You can’t call your shampoo “Grow Hair on a Bald Head Shampoo” unless it really does.

As a marketing ploy, I suspect it often backfires anyway. In Pannell et al. (2006) we highlight the importance of trust and credibility if you wish to be effective at influencing farmers. Trust and credibility are hard to win and easy to lose. If I were a farmer, I think my view would be that anyone who named a practice “best” even though it did not suit my farm or was not consistent with my goals, clearly would not deserve my trust and would have little credibility. I’d dismiss them as highly biased, and as running an agenda of their own, which they were trying to impose on me. I’d feel more negative about them for making a weak attempt to disguise their agenda than if they were up front about it.

For all these reasons, the appropriate thing is to call these practices what they really are: conservation practices, or environmentally beneficial practices, or something like that. That would be best, I think.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424.

If you or your organisation subscribes to the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture you can access the paper at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au to ask for a copy. See http://www.ruralpracticechange.org/.

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