Agriculture, Climate change, Economics, Environment, Latest, Policy, Research

386. Transformative change versus incremental change

A “Strategic Plan for Science” put out by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in December 2022 flags a change in strategic objectives for the organisation. “With the climate crisis looming, research on incremental productivity gains will not protect the industry from the volatility of a changing environment. An effective response will require a paradigm shift.” Is that really true? I have my doubts.

The upshot of this thinking is a change of strategic objectives for research. The previous research objective of AAFC were:

  • “increasing agricultural productivity;
  • improving environmental performance;
  • improving attributes for food and non-food uses; and
  • addressing threats to the agriculture and agri-food value chain.”

Going forward, the objectives will be “to ensure a sustainable, resilient, and profitable agriculture and agri-food sector by 2050 in four priority areas:

  • mitigating and adapting to climate change;
  • increasing the resiliency of agro-ecosystems;
  • advancing the circular economy by developing value-added opportunities;
  • accelerating the digital transformation of the agriculture and agri-food sector.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this negative sentiment toward traditional agricultural research (perceived as targeting incremental change) as a climate-adaptation strategy. A couple of times in recent discussions with people in Australia, I’ve heard very similar statements, along the lines that incremental change will not be sufficient in response to climate change so agricultural research needs to focus on delivering transformative change.

The consistency of the message and the fact that I keep hearing it makes me wonder whether somebody persuasive is out there selling this idea. If so, they seem to be succeeding.

However, I am worried that this change of strategy may backfire. Here are my concerns.

Firstly, the premise that incremental change will not protect agricultural industries from the adverse impacts of climate change is highly questionable. History shows that agricultural research has been remarkably successful in delivering productivity improvements in agriculture. The gains accumulate over time and, in the long run, they amount to very large increases. For example, since I graduated with my Agricultural Science degree in 1983, cereal crop yields in Western Australia have doubled, thanks to a combination of changes in technology and farming systems, each of which, when looked at individually, would be seen as providing incremental benefits. The changes include new crop varieties, new crop types and rotations, new weed control systems, zero till, controlled traffic farming, changes in fertilizer strategies, and so on.

These gains have easily exceeded the negative impacts of climate change over the same time frame (Asseng and Pannell, 2013). Similar gains in productivity have occurred wherever there have been substantial investments in productivity-oriented agricultural research. All around the world, measured rates of return to investment in agricultural research have been very high (e.g., Alston et al. 2022).

Secondly, focusing on research that aims to jump directly to transformational change in one step (rather than by aggregating incremental changes) seems much less likely to succeed. From my observation of many agricultural research projects over the years, it is extremely difficult for such a project to deliver transformative change. Farmers are very interested in improving their productivity, but they are also sensibly cautious when it comes to adopting new technologies and practices. They are much less likely to adopt a radical change to their farming system than a series of incremental changes. The latter strategy provides more opportunities to learn about the performance of a new practice and how best to implement it. The radical-change approach is much riskier from a farmer’s perspective.

In fact, when farmers are offered a transformative package of practices, they typically convert it into a set of incremental changes. They will choose one or two elements of the package that are most attractive and will not adopt those that they don’t like the look of, or need more time to be convinced of.

Thirdly, if the route to transformative change is seen to be via the sorts of areas identified by AAFC (mitigation, adaptation, resilience, circular economy, digital transformation), the challenges will be even greater. It is quite clear that the best way to help farmers survive climate disasters like floods and drought is to make them more profitable at other times, and the most effective and efficient way to do that is probably by investing in traditional productivity-oriented agricultural research. Those other elements might be useful supplements to traditional agricultural research, but I honestly can’t see them delivering more than a modest fraction of the same benefits to farmers.

Of course, they might deliver benefits of a type that traditional agricultural research overlooks, such as environmental benefits or climate-change mitigation, but that alone won’t keep farmers in business unless very generous subsidies are offered.

Further reading

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2022). Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Strategic Plan for Science, Web page.

Alston, J., Pardey, P. and Rao, X. (2022). Payoffs to a half century of CGIAR research, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 104(2), 502 – 529.

Asseng, S. and Pannell, D.J. (2013). Adapting dryland agriculture to climate change: farming implications and research and development needs in Western Australia, Climatic Change 118(2), 167-181.