A theory of change for sustainable agriculture

December 15, 2022

Modern industrial agriculture is the perpetrator of extensive environmental, economic, and social woes. From the collapse of insect populations to the hollowing out of rural economies to the labor abuses of farm workers. Our food system, while achieving truly impressive amounts of production and an era of immeasurably cheap calories, is the target of intense and targeted criticism for these misdeeds. There are many practices that, if implemented, would mitigate many of these issues. Rotational grazing, cover cropping, agroforestry, integrated pest management, and a plethora of other measures are designed to lower inputs and ameliorate ecological damages. Furthering the adoption of these is critical for reaching food system sustainability.

As of writing, there are two primary strategies for adopting sustainable agricultural practices in North America. These are voluntary adoption and payments for ecosystem services. The former is fairly straightforward as it’s simply through a mix of education and demonstration that hopes landowners will see the obvious benefits of sustainable practices and voluntarily switch to utilizing them. The other strategy focuses on utilizing financial incentives to pay landowners and farmers to switch agricultural practices towards more sustainable management. Carbon markets are most prominent in this sector, which is often criticized for overselling how much carbon is being sequestered and greenwashing the carbon emissions of those purchasing the offsets.

Both of these approaches have had some success because thousands of acres have been improved and environmental problems mitigated by their employment. However, these strategies have been woefully underwhelming in their ability to, at scale, change land use in an environmentally sustainable way.

A more substantive theory of change is needed to drive the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. For this, I want to adapt the approach espoused by the Center for Open Science, which designs software to increase the transparency of scientific research (read about their mission here). Their model utilizes a pyramid of strategies that builds off each other to drive behavioral change. I have adapted this model to apply to agriculture.

theory of change

Behavior change pyramid adapted from Nosek, 2019

The first step here is ‘make it possible.’ Or, in other words, infrastructure and research. A decent portion of agricultural research funding, at least from the federal government, goes to sustainability projects. However, orienting more research dollars towards these projects is necessary to truly provide the innovation necessary to shift more of our food system away from the conventional and towards the sustainable. This includes breeding so-called crops of the future and finding ways to manage pests and diseases without the need for chemical-centric management.

While research and plant breeding are important aspects of this, other forms of infrastructure and investment will also be necessary to drive adoption. For example, transitioning large swaths of land to agroforestry would require much more nursery capacity and individuals who know how to raise and plant trees on a mass scale. These investments, both financial and educational, in the supporting sectors of agriculture to accommodate the expansion of currently niche practices are critical before these practices can be mobilized.

The next major step is cultural change. Many farmers have an idea of ‘how farming is meant to be done.’ This often includes routines that serve few practical purposes, such as fall tillage, that nonetheless are widespread due to cultural and aesthetic attitudes around having a ‘clean field.’ Another example is cover crops and trees, which many farmers will decry as weedy or unsightly. The fear of judgment from one’s neighbor keeps these attitudes entrenched and prevents better practices from emerging.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Cultural change can come from many directions, but those most readily available for enterprising changemakers are education and demonstration. Workshops, conferences, classes, and simply adopting practices to show one’s neighbors that they work are incredibly powerful. Many farmers are insular and will only consider adopting new practices if they can see it is operable by neighbors and other trusted individuals. Simply hearing about cover crops from a local extension agent is not enough; they need to see the farm up the road also utilizing them. Simply normalizing sustainability among mainstream farmers will make it seem less like something being pushed upon them by “outsiders” but as something their community themselves are interested in.

Now, we get to the tricky part of the pyramid – incentives. Subsidies, cost shares, and payments for ecosystem services are powerful tools for behavior change. However, when divorced from a wider strategy that utilizes them in a controlled manner, they can quickly become another way of enriching an already heavily subsidized industry. The biofuel boom of recent decades is a good example of this. Commodity lobbies saw a legitimate problem, energy shortages, and a desire to shrug off fossil fuel dependency and stepped in to push for a solution that would enrich them. A decade later, biofuels are propped up by mandates that do little to mitigate energy issues or reliance on oil. While biofuels may serve a minor role in an ideal energy portfolio, it is clear their primary purpose now is to prop up the prices of corn and soy. This is the danger of throwing incentives at the problem, as they can become costly and entrenched.

So what is the place of incentives in making agriculture more sustainable? Targeting incentives towards encouraging early adopters of such practices will not only encourage experimentation and nascent growth of infrastructure and products to serve those early adopters but also fund the spread of sustainable practices into communities. Thus increasing the demonstration piece. These programs should be designed to ensure those being subsidized continue once the money stops flowing. Sometimes this will take the form of contracts or even establishing land trusts; other times, it will rely on using structures such as cost shares that require the farmer to invest in the practice themselves. Incentives should be considered a transition policy, not the final goal.

The peak of the pyramid is, of course, policy. Once the infrastructure has been laid, early adopters have been experimenting, and the wider culture has been primed, we can start expecting instead of merely encouraging sustainability from our farmers. Regulation is often not included in conversations about sustainable adoption, and just suggesting them as an option often ends the discussion. Even with this, it is imperative we begin the conversation around requiring sustainable practices on American farms. With the failure of voluntary adoption and the untenable nature of a purely incentives-focused strategy, regulation will eventually be necessary.

Simply requiring individual practices is largely out of the question beyond banning specific things like fall tillage. Given the highly contextual and place-specific nature of land management, trying to prescribe practices is untenable. One direction could be fining farmers for negative externalities, such as erosion or nutrient runoff, which would nudge farmers towards practices to ameliorate their pollution. Another possible direction is tying existing subsidies to following environmental benchmarks that, if not met, would result in the loss or reduction of subsidies. These should be calibrated to what practices are currently possible or reasonable to implement to prevent causing detriment to our food supply.

Many of the practices outlined in this strategy are already being implemented. The problem is there is little direction or focus on pursuing a more cohesive strategy. Simply pursuing education, incentives, or policy changes misses the forest for the trees. Looking at the food system in a holistic manner and employing a diverse set of strategies is the best way to ensure lasting and stable change. Integrating this understanding into advocacy, activism, research, and nonprofit and government programming is critical to achieving a truly sustainable agriculture.


Teaser photo credit: A cover crop of Tillage Radish in early November. By Ethanstuckey – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115365813

Nolan Monaghan

Nolan is a graduate student at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry studying ecological interactions in cropping systems. In the past, he has also worked in agricultural policy and seed systems with multiple Non-Governmental Organizations and university research centers. He is interested in how agriculture can change from a force of environmental and social destruction to a force for restoration and enrichment. He writes about food, landscapes, and related topics at ndmonaghan.substack.com.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, sustainable agriculture, theory of change