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News announcement28 October 2019

Understanding what drives farmers’ choices would contribute to more climate-friendly agriculture

JRC scientists comb through two decades worth of research to better understand what influences farmers’ choices to adopt sustainable practices.

Understanding what drives farmers’ choices would contribute to more climate-friendly agriculture. The researchers explored the cognitive, social and dispositional factors affecting farmers decisions to adopt green practices.
The researchers explored the cognitive, social and dispositional factors affecting farmers decisions to adopt green practices.
© StockMEdiaProduction, AdobeStock, 2019

The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) spent last year almost 60 billion Euros to make sure that European agriculture provides safe, secure food for our citizens in a sustainable way, while ensuring that farmers make a reasonable living.

Putting such a massive policy increasingly in the service of the EU’s environmental and climate objectives could be a major help in making European societies more sustainable.

A key factor to achieve this is to ensure that policy makers understand how European farmers make decisions on whether or not they adopt environmentally sustainable practices.

To give one example, farmers are very sensitive to how their community views their contributions to the environment.

Providing some sort of public recognition for farmers’ efforts toward the environment more than doubles the odds that they will continue applying green practices.

This is just one example from a recent publication of JRC’s scientists which argues that better understanding the behavioural factors behind farmers’ decisions to adopt sustainable practices could help to achieve ambitious climate targets without necessarily increasing financial outlays.

Following the tradition of classical economics it is often assumed that farmers are well informed rational actors who quickly react to economic incentives.

François J. Dessart, Jesús Barreiro-Hurlé and René van Bavel point out in their publication that this rationality assumption might lead to unrealistic policy expectations.

To better understand the factors influencing farmers’ decisions the authors reviewed the results of economic, psychological and sociological research conducted on the behavioural factors influencing farmers’ or landowners’ choices to adopt sustainable practices between 1998 and 2018.

Their work is unprecedented both due to its width covering several fields together and also because of the new taxonomy they introduced.

Three group of factors behind farmers’ decisions

The study divides the factors influencing the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices into three major clusters.

The factors closest to the actual decision on whether to adopt such practices are farmers’ perceptions of the financial benefits, costs and risks of introducing a particular environmentally friendly practice.

The study calls these cognitive factors. Social factors, like the actions of neighbours, the opinion of central figures of the local community or the expectations of the farmer’s spouse, are also at play.

The furthest away from the actual decision, yet still having significant influence on whether farmers adopt the sustainable practices are dispositional factors like the farmers’ personality, motivations, values, beliefs, general preferences and objectives.

Take away for policy makers and citizens

This literature review suggests that farmers’ decisions are not always in line with what would be expected from a purely economic perspective. Taking into account these behavioural factors can thus help design more grounded environment friendly agricultural policies.

On the short run making voluntary schemes more flexible and bringing their payments more in line with the costs that farmers perceive could encourage the adoption of sustainable practices.

The adoption of reduced input use could be encouraged through informing farmers about its true financial and environmental benefits.

In the long run policy makers should aim to increase farmers’ environmental concern and influence them to place a heavier emphasis on conservation (environmental care) as a farming objective.

Making sure that farmers who adopt environmentally friendly practices are recognised for their efforts by their community might be a valuable measure to this end.

As citizens and consumers, each of us has also a crucial role to play in the long run: if we are more aware and concerned about the environmental sustainability of farming practices farmers will be more willing to change their practices.

Related Content

Behavioural factors affecting the adoption of sustainable farming practices: a policy-oriented review (Oxford University press)


Publication date
28 October 2019