Agriculture, Behaviour, Latest, Policy

351. Adoption and Behaviour Change in Agricultural Policy

An ability to understand and predict adoption of new farming practices is useful for agricultural policy in several ways, including: assessing additionality, selecting policy mechanisms, targeting policy to practices, farmer types or regions, and assessing likely policy success.

That is one of the central points in my paper with Roger Claassen from last year, which is getting a good level of attention.

Assessing additionality

In voluntary conservation incentive programs, additionality is a critical determinant of program benefits. A conservation action (and the resulting environmental gain) that is supported by a payment is additional if the farmer would not have taken the action if he or she had not received the payment. Environmental gains that flow from non-additional actions cannot be attributed to the incentive program.

Additionality is essentially about behaviour change. How many farmers would change their behaviour (adopt the new farming practice) even if they were not paid to do so. This should be thought about and predicted prior to deciding whether to offer payments to reward adoption.

Selecting Policy Mechanisms

Anticipating adoptability of an agricultural practice that generates public goods (e.g. reduced water pollution) is relevant to the choice of policy mechanism. If a practice is highly adoptable (attractive to landholders), a program relying on agricultural extension to raise awareness of the practices and provide technical support is probably sufficient to generate widespread adoption. If the practice is not attractive to farmers, an incentive-based mechanism, such as incentive payments, a reverse auction, tradeable permits or regulation is more likely to secure practice adoption. Again, anticipating adoption before designing the policy can help create a more effective and efficient policy.

Targeting Policy

For many conservation or environmental objectives, there are various farming practices that could potentially be promoted. For example, reduced nitrogen pollution in streams could be pursued by promoting: reductions in fertilizer rates, zero-till, cover crops, nitrification inhibitors, land retirement, buffer strips, or constructed wetlands. The potential adoptability of those practices varies widely. Information about their likely adoption (together with other information, such as their effectiveness at delivering the desired benefits) can be used to inform choices about which practices would best achieve conservation program objectives.

Understanding the adoptability of practices for farmers of different types in different regions assists in designing cost-effective policies. In particular, it helps with targeting of program resources to those farm types or regions where they can make the biggest contribution to program targets. In programs that mainly aim to increase agricultural productivity (e.g. extension to promote uptake of a higher-yielding rice variety), anticipating the likely extent of adoption of a new practice is closely related to understanding which farmers would actually benefit from the practice. Knowing who these farmers are helps a program to avoid expending resources on promoting the practice to farmers who would not benefit from it, and so would very probably not adopt it.

For programs that aim to encourage conservation-practice adoption, there can be benefits in targeting program effort to conservation practices that are attractive to farmers even in the absence of incentive-based mechanisms. For example, many farmers around the world have adopted zero till even in the absence of program incentives.

Assessing the Likely Success of Policy Proposals

Anticipating likely adoption of a practice given a proposed incentive or other policy intervention is relevant to considering whether the proposed program will be effective. If anticipated adoption is low, a reconsideration of approach may be indicated.  Although the published research on the adoption of conservation practices in agriculture is enormous, there has been relatively little effort to develop predictive tools, based on a synthesis of the existing literature, that can aid in understanding the potential adoptability of individual practices or practice bundles. Our ADOPT model (Kuehne et al. 2017) is designed to predict adoption of a well-specified farming practice by a well-specified population of farmers, with a focus on how well the characteristics of the practice align with the goals and preferences of the farmers.

Overall, a deep understanding of farmers’ adoption of new practices, including an ability to predict it, is essential if agricultural policies are to be effective and efficient. A lack of this understanding will probably lead to a lot of public money being wasted.

Further reading

Kuehne, G., R. Llewellyn, D.J. Pannell, R. Wilkinson, P. Dolling, J. Ouzman, and M. Ewing. 2017. Predicting Farmer Uptake of New Agricultural Practices: A Tool for Research, Extension and Policy, Agricultural Systems 156: 115-25. Journal web page (open access)

Pannell, D.J. and R. Claassen. 2020. The Roles of Adoption and Behavior Change in Agricultural Policy. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 31-41.