Achieving sustainable agricultural practices: From incentives to adoption and outcomes


by Valeria Piñeiro, Joaquín Arias, Pablo Elverdin, Ana María Ibáñez, Cristian Morales Opazo, Steve Prager, and Máximo Torero | February 17, 2021

This is an excerpt from the new policy brief “Achieving sustainable agricultural practices: From incentives to adoption and outcomes” by Valeria Piñeiro, Joaquín Arias, Pablo Elverdin, Ana María Ibáñez, Cristian Morales Opazo, Steve Prager, and Máximo Torero. The brief is drawn from “A Scoping Review on Incentives for Adoption of Sustainable Agricultural Practices and Their Outcomes,” (Piñeiro et al. 2020, Nature Sustainability).

The pressure on agricultural production systems to achieve global food security — particularly in today’s context of growing populations, changing food demand, and threats of natural resource degradation and climate change — demands that we rethink current production systems and shift rapidly toward more sustainable models.

When employed by land users, a combination of sustainable agricultural practices can facilitate ecosystem protection, increase farm productivity, reduce poverty, and advance food security. Sustainable agriculture has the potential to contribute directly to meeting several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those on poverty, hunger, inequality, responsible consumption and production, climate, and ecosystems, in addition to local and national development and environmental goals.

Sustainable agricultural practices are those that enable more efficient use of natural resources, mitigate the impact of agriculture on the environment, and strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change and climate variability. They include crop rotation, increased crop diversity, use of cover crops, no-till and reduced-till systems, integrated pest management (IPM), integration of livestock and crops, sustainable agroforestry practices, and precision farming, among others. Achieving environmental sustainability in agriculture requires good management of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on, which can provide important public goods, particularly in the form of ecosystem services.

Sustainable agricultural practices usually require substantial effort or resource allocation from farmers, and are adopted in response to concrete incentives provided by policies and market conditions as well as by the support of local and national governments and public-private partnerships. Adoption of sustainable practices also depends on farmers’ environmental preferences, market factors, and cultural and socioeconomic characteristics. Despite growing interest in sustainable agriculture and an expanding number of projects and policies to promote these practices in many countries, there has been little evaluation of the incentives–adoption–outcome chain: that is, how well different incentives promote adoption, whether adoption leads to meaningful and measurable changes in outcomes, and what factors shape these links. The incentives–adoption–outcomes chain offers a consistent logic by which to parse and evaluate best practices around sustainability themes; however, the existing literature on these links is inconclusive and unclear at best, especially across different incentive types.

With this challenge in mind, and within the framework of the Ceres2030 initiative for Sustainable Solutions to End Hunger, we conducted a scoping review to provide much needed evidence on the effects of different incentives both on farmers’ adoption of sustainable agricultural practices and on the agricultural, economic, and environmental outcomes expected from these interventions. This analysis aims to support a more evidence-based focus on the policy options open to national governments and other relevant stakeholders.

Our scoping review of the linkages between incentives, adoption, and outcomes looked at studies across a range of developed and developing countries to examine: (1) the means for motivating participation (incentives); (2) how these drive the level of uptake (adoption); and (3) how adoption facilitates meeting program objectives (outcomes) at scale.

We examined three kinds of incentives: market and nonmarket, regulations, and cross-compliance. We also considered whether the compulsory or voluntary nature of the incentives affects farmers’ willingness to adopt sustainable practices.

For each type of incentive, we examined its expected effect on (1) productivity (e.g., yields, labor per hectare); (2) profitability (e.g., farm incomes); and (3) environmental sustainability (e.g., water-use efficiency, sustainable forestry). We also analyzed the factors that influence the adoption, or not, of sustainable practices. Finally, we examined the effectiveness of incentives in achieving the expected outcomes.

Broadly speaking, the evidence shows that incentives that promote economic benefits are more likely to lead to the adoption of better practices in the short term, especially if they are voluntary. In the long-term, however, positive outcomes for the farm or the environment are prime motivators. Adoption of new practices under compulsory programs depends on enforcement and monitoring. While the scoping review revealed important knowledge gaps that should be addressed in the near future, we are able to make some simple but important recommendations for policymakers based on our findings.

To learn more, read the full brief>>

Also read: 

How to encourage farmers to adopt sustainable agriculture

Ceres2030 research: Ending hunger sustainably by 2030 requires doubling assistance

This brief was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The views and opinions presented do not necessarily reflect those of PIM, IFPRI, or CGIAR. These findings benefited from the Ceres2030 program, developed in cooperation with Cornell University, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The authors thank the Ceres2030 program and its funders, BMZ (Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Valeria Piñeiro is a senior research coordinator in the Markets, Trade and Institutions Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC. Joaquín Arias is an international technical specialist in the Center for Strategic Analysis for Agriculture (CAESPA) of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, San Jose, Costa Rica. Pablo Elverdin is a strategy and content coordinator at the Grupo de Países Productores del Sur, Buenos Aires. Ana María Ibáñez is a principal economics advisor in the Vice Presidency for Sectors and Knowledge of the Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC. Cristian Morales Opazo is a senior economist in the Agrifood Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Steve Prager is a principal scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Cali, Colombia. Máximo Torero is chief economist in the Economic and Social Development Stream of the FAO, Rome.

Photo: Kate Evans/CIFOR


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