What motivates farmers to engage in environmental stewardship? Lessons from qualitative research in Britain
Mills, Jane, Peter Gaskell, and Julie Ingram et al. ”Engaging farmers in environmental management through a better understanding of behaviour.” Agriculture and Human Values (2017) 34: 283-299Mills, Jane, Peter Gaskell, and Julie Ingram et al. ”Engaging farmers in environmental management through a better understanding of behaviour.” Agriculture and Human Values (2017) 34: 283-299
What motivates people to care about protecting the environment? The long-term success of the environmental movement depends on the answer to this question. Therefore, understanding the cultural and psychological drivers of human behavior and decision-making is key. A 2017 study by researchers at the Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire, U.K., studied the underlying reasons and motivations to protect the environment among farmers in particular. The study, titled “Engaging farmers in environmental management through a better understanding of behaviour”, drew on 120 semi-structured interviews to identify the key factors that influence a farmer’s willingness to implement environmentally-friendly practices on their land. The study focused in particular on farmers’ willingness to preserve habitat (trees, hedges, open space) at the edge of their fields for wildlife. (Choosing not to plow land also entailed sacrificing the income that could have been gained from planting it.)
Through a close analysis of the interviews, the authors identified two divergent worldviews which were at the root of a farmer’s attitude towards environmental protection. These were the “productivist” and the “stewardship” views. Farmers who held a “production first” mentality were the least willing to prioritize environmental protection. This mindset is based on an assumption of food shortage and the belief that it is a farmer’s duty to produce enough food for the world. A quote from an interview summarizes this view: “The world is short of food, full stop, end of story. To take land out of production and let somebody starve, morally is that right? Who is the prime species? Is it humans or is it wildlife?” (p. 291) In contrast, farmers who took a “stewardship” approach saw their role as protecting the land for future generations, and were more inclined to protect the environment. One farmer described it this way: “I’ve always been conscious of the wildlife around me. My father was a big believer in that we’re only farming for a very short period of time in the global thing, and when you borrow anything from anybody, whether its land or your next door neighbor’s car…you always put it back as good or better.”(p. 291) Both groups keenly felt their sense of duty to the world at large, but acted on it differently. “Productivist” farmers valued human concerns above all, whereas “stewardship” farmers also considered the needs of non-human life.
The authors also investigated how a farmer’s beliefs and willingness to change were shaped at three levels: the farm level, the community level, and societal level. At the farm level, farmers were influenced by the views of their family members. Interestingly, the authors found that both older and younger farmers held “stewardship” and “productivist” mindsets - the worldview could not be fully attributed to the time period in which they grew up. At the community level, farmers were influenced by their fellow farmers and by the social norms in their farming community. Some farmers said that they didn’t implement environmental practices because there was implicit competition to have a highly productive and financially successful farm, and environmental concerns were seen as a distraction. At the societal level, farmers were influenced by what they perceived as the public’s concerns. Therefore, as the public in recent years has started to care more about environmental issues, farmers changed their practices as well. Farmers emphasized in interviews that they felt a strong sense of duty to society at large, and felt that people were often unaware of their efforts.
The researchers concluded that the most effective way to change beliefs and norms was to targeting large networks of farmers at the community level. Farmers were most influenced by their peers, and discussing practices in groups could create positive social norms. Attempting to influence farmers at the individual level was much less successful, unless the influencer (such as an extension agent or agricultural expert) already had a long-term relationship with the farmers. Lastly, the authors concluded that the two worldviews are not mutually exclusive, and that more information needed to be made available to farmers about ways to increase yield while still implementing environmentally sustainable practices.
Lessons from this study can be applied to many situations in which changing group norms is necessary to achieve environmental protection. However, the authors conclude that practical concerns and financial worries often prevent farmers from implementing environmental practices – changing values is the most essential step, but on its own it is not enough and more support is needed in the transition to environmental protection.