Building cross sector bridges and engaging farmers to own the environmental agenda
Not since the two world wars has there been so much pressure on agriculture to deliver for society. The complex set of demands asked from the countryside for food, energy, flood mitigation, carbon capture, biodiversity recovery and recreational provisions is resulting in conflict over how we tackle these issues; where emphasis should be put and what their longer-term impacts might be. Since the 1980s governments have been legislating to mitigate the effects of farming on the natural environment, and success from implementation has been felt. More however needs to be done and maintaining the pace of progress for environmental recovery is proving difficult.
The aim of my study was to investigate ways of improving the delivery of agri-environment outcomes by better farmer engagement, cross sector collaboration and breaking down the barriers to influencing policy. My research led me to countries where environmental targets are a source of conflict and social disruption within the farming sector: Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania and the UK. I talked to farmers, regulators, researchers and environmental organisations to understand all perspectives of the challenge and looked at various initiatives to identify the principles of success.
My research uncovered discontent within all stakeholder groups in the environmental agenda; from farmers frustrated by laws that are ill-fitting and have unintended consequences, to environmental organisations disheartened by lack of progress and concerned about the future. Top-down rules, inadequate ground-truthing and the use of theoretical data sets for regulation were blamed by the agriculture industry for its reticence about the environment. The language of the conversation is also widely considered to be a barrier to progress.
Solutions lie in valuing the knowledge that exists within the farming community and developing outcome-based rules rather than prescription led regulation. Local level data capture can help farmers understand an issue in their setting and identify practical fixes that can fit their farming systems. More autonomy in decision-making encourages farmers to own the outcomes of environmental schemes, so gets better results. And facilitating farmer driven initiatives can increase engagement and encourage less willing individuals to participate in effecting positive environmental change. To value farmers’, stakeholders in the environmental agenda need to consider their relationships with other stakeholder groups. Paternalistic, top-down relationships discourage honest and open dialogue. Farmers, policy makers, researchers and environmental organisations need to work as equal partners to meet our environmental aims, and they need to build trust with one another to enable positive communication on which future collaboration can be built.
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