Communication, Environment, Natural resource management, Policy

67 – Using communication and education to encourage land-use change in agriculture for environmental benefits

Communication and education (or more generally, extension) are widely relied upon in environmental programs. However, much of this extension is of limited effect. It is important to target extension to situations where it is more likely to have an impact, and to have realistic expectations about what can be achieved through extension.

Following last week’s piece on using incentive payments to encourage people to change their behaviour to benefit the environment, this week we look at using communication and education for the same purposes. Again the context is public funding to encourage land-use change in agriculture, but the principles are broadly relevant. By “communication and education”, I will actually mean the broader activity of “extension”, which includes communication, education, persuasion, formation of communication networks, and so on.

There are perhaps four broad roles for extension in encouraging and supporting land-use change.

(a) to encourage people to trial, and (it is hoped) subsequently adopt, new practices that are believed to be in their best interest already, and that happen to also benefit the environment, and hence benefit the broader community; (I noted in PD#66 that small, temporary incentives may potentially be useful as an element of this strategy.)

(b) to raise awareness of other issues or opportunities that may encourage land-use change (e.g. provide information about the availability of incentive payments, and how to apply for them);

(c) to provide technical information or training on how best to implement a particular technology or practice;

(d) to change people’s goals and values so that they give a higher priority to environmental outcomes, and so are more likely to change their land use.

There is probably an excessive reliance on extension in many environmental programs. Even with the most expert and persuasive extension, landholders are not likely to change their management unless they can be convinced that the proposed changes are consistent with their goals (Pannell et al., 2005). Therefore, expectations about the extent of change that is likely to result from extension need to be realistic. Large changes made by large numbers of farmers are not likely to be attributable to extension in most cases. For one thing, landholders and their lands are highly heterogeneous. Any given technology only advances the goals of some landholders, and often only on some of their land.

It is likely that the main contributions of extension will be through raising awareness and, to some extent, changing perceptions of the relevance and performance of an innovation. It is much more difficult (and sometimes ethically problematic) to change the goals of people. It seems that the Landcare movement in Australia has increased the emphasis given to conservation goals by landholders, but the extent of increase has been modest for most landholders and the movement has perhaps reached the limits of its influence.

The difficulty of changing behaviour through communication and education is highlighted by some of the experiences in health promotion. A striking example was the “Mr Fit” study, run by Len Syme (University of California) in the US in the 1970s.

Len Syme: Many years ago, we did the most expensive, elaborate, ambitious clinical trial that the world has ever seen, on heart disease. It was in the 1970s when we first really accumulated solid evidence about risk factors for heart disease. … And we decided to recruit a group of people in very high risk categories for those reasons, and to help them reduce that risk to show the difference it would make. Unfortunately the statisticians told us that we would have to have 12,000 men in order to do this study, half of whom would work with their doctors and half of whom would work with us in the clinic. In order to recruit those 12,000 men, we had to screen 500,000 men in 22 different cities in the United States. It cost $180 million.

These men went through three elaborate screenings of ten hours. We told these people, ‘Look, you may be eligible for this trial, but do not volunteer unless you really are clear about the terms. The first consideration is, you’re going to be asked to work with us in the clinic, or work with your own doctor, a random decision. And if that’s not acceptable, don’t volunteer. If you work with us in the clinic, you’re going to have to come in with your family for many sessions, you’re going to have to come in frequently at the beginning; we’re going to ask you to stop smoking, take pills for blood pressure, change your diet, and you’re going to have to come in to the clinic for six years.’

Then we had a psychologist get rid of people that we thought would be faint of heart. So we ended up with these highly motivated, highly knowledgeable, informed people who knew they were in the top 10% of risk and who were currently free of heart disease. And then we did the best intervention that I’ve ever been involved with. I mean, we brought all the families in and showed them in the clinics how to do low-fat cooking; we took them to the supermarket to show them how to read the labels in the market; we went to their homes and cooked with them in their homes with things they already had in their home; we did that with all the issues, and it was really intense and elaborate. And after six years of intervention there was no difference in the two groups.

Len’s conclusion from this was, “It’s absolutely clear that providing information to people is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but it’s close to useless.” (For the full transcript of this interview, see here.)

Now, I am not arguing that extension is useless; there is clear research evidence of it making a difference to adoption in some cases. However, I am proposing that we need to be realistic in our expectations about it, and clever in choosing where and where not to use it as our front line tool to protect the environment.

Len Syme’s salutary tale, and other empirical evidence from agriculture, suggests that for many innovations, extension’s main contribution will be to accelerate the adoption process, rather than to lift the final level of adoption. The main exceptions (i.e. cases where the final level of adoption is greater with extension than without it) would be technologies that would have entirely failed to diffuse in the absence of extension, perhaps due to problems with trialling those technologies (e.g., low observability, high complexity).

Related to this, extension is unlikely to persuade landholders to make greater use of a technology with which they already have personal experience, unless the extension provides new information about a change that increases the attractiveness of the innovation (e.g., new information about how to better implement the innovation, or about new incentive payments to encourage adoption). When people have personal experience, they primarily rely on that for their decision making, rather than on information coming from outsiders.

Pannell et al. (2006) argue that if a practice is not adopted in the long term, it is because the farmers are not convinced that it advances their goals sufficiently to outweigh its costs. A consequence of this is that we should avoid putting the main burden for promoting adoption onto communication, education and persuasion activities. This strategy is unfortunately common, but is destined to fail if the innovations being promoted are not sufficiently attractive to the target audience.

Crucially, the innovations need to be “adoptable”. If they are not, then communication and education activities will simply confirm a farmer’s decision not to adopt as well as degrade the social standing of the field agents of the organisation. Extension providers and funders should invest time and resources in attempting to ascertain whether an innovation is adoptable before proceeding with extension to promote its uptake.

It can also be important to check that farmers do not already know enough about the innovation to make a good decision about it. It may be that they’ve already weighed it up, based on reasonably accurate information, and consciously decided not to adopt it (PD#25). If so, further extension on the subject is highly unlikely to make a difference. Llewellyn et al. (2005) demonstrate a process of targeting extension to where it can make a real difference, based on farmers existing knowledge.

For some environmental issues, the real challenge is to find or develop innovations that are not only good for the environment, but also economically superior to the practices they are supposed to replace. If such innovations cannot be identified or developed, there is no point in falling back onto communication. Promoting inferior technologies will only lead to frustration for all parties.

Trying to pull all that together and simplify it down to its essence, in the Salinity Investment Framework (SIF3, Ridley and Pannell, 2005) we reason as follows:

Extension. This is usually the appropriate response where perennials are already economically competitive, although in some cases where they are competitive [and they cause downstream costs], penalties may be warranted to discourage adoption. Extension may also be appropriate in cases where farmers generally lack information or have mis-perceptions about the salinity problem or its management.”

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Llewellyn, R.S., Pannell, D.J., Lindner, R.K. and Powles, S.B. (2005). Targeting key perceptions when planning and evaluating extension. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45 (forthcoming). full paper (52K)

Ridley AM and Pannell DJ (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia, Perth. Full paper (126K pdf) 2-page summary SIF3 project page

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. Access paper at Journal web site here. Pre-publication version available here (161K).