Conservation agriculture: Address silent change barriers

We value the pain of losing more than we do the pleasure of gaining, warns Mary Maluleke in the second part of her conservation agriculture series. She says more proven localised examples are needed of how it improved soil health and incresed crop yields. Maluleke is a junior resource economist with ASSET Research.

Have you ever wondered why most brands often market their products as South Africa’s best, most trusted or No 1? I have, and I dreaded such adverts and disliked that marketing strategy. One day, in a behavioural science class, I asked our lecturer why that was the case. He said, “Some of it is true, but most of it is just a strategy that leverages on people’s biases.”

Conservation agriculture: Mary Maluleke is a junior resource economist with ASSET Research. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Mary Maluleke is a junior resource economist with ASSET Research. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

This sparked my interest in the topic of the human mind, its biases, and how those influence human behaviour and present themselves in our lives, reasoning, and choices – especially knowing that 95% of our thinking is done using system 1 (intuitive and instinctive) thinking that is fast, associative, and often our automatic pilot.

I sought to try as much as I could to reach into my slower, more logical, effort driven system of thinking (our rational system 2 thinking), when making big decisions or when trying to understand deeply why I do what I do.

Although regenerative conservation agriculture (conservation agriculture/regenerative agriculture) adoption rates in South Africa have significantly increased since 2015/2016, about 75% of farmers still use conventional tillage and other forms of conservation tillage.

In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), investigated some of the reasons contributing to this challenge of limited adoption. It found that the main reasons were: familiarity, perceived risk and uncertainty, lack of knowledge, lack of proven localised examples, and relatively high initial costs (associated with the initial conversion to conservation agriculture/regenerative agriculture).

Conservation agriculture practices

Familiarity is a mental shortcut (heuristics) that we often use when sticking to choices that worked in the past because they are safe and less difficult to make due to pre-existing informational and cognitive limitations. It is a status quo bias and can explain the continued use of conservation agriculture practices by farmers. They have been used for decades and are more familiar than new ones.

Perceived risk and uncertainty are closely tied to human nature. We intuitively tend to favour the known over the unknown, including known risks over unknown risks (ambiguity aversion bias) and we value the pain of losing more than we do the pleasure of gaining.

So, for a risk and loss averse farmer, unknown risk and the possibility of loss may influence their decision to continue the practice they know and can relate to.

Lack of knowledge is often an issue of access than availability. There is sufficient information about conservation agriculture/regenerative agriculture, but perhaps not accessible to farmers in a way that is understandable to them.

Information that is easy-to-understand is essential to uptake because we all evaluate information we have, in a way that fits our existing thinking and preconceptions (biases). So, if a farmer cannot access or understand it, they cannot evaluate and challenge what they already know.

Dissecting farmer biases

Lack of proven localised examples is an important factor because we often look to what others are doing to inform our decisions, hence that marketing strategy (social norm bias). If a practice is applied by most farmers in the sector, it will be further applied on the basis of it being used by the majority.

Similarly, some farmers will continue conservation agriculture because firstly, it was historically normalised, or secondly, there are not enough local examples to nudge and encourage them to adopt conservation agriculture/regenerative agriculture.

Although relatively high initial costs seem to be a fair reason, it can also conceal present bias, which is the tendency to give stronger weight to returns that are closer to the present time, than those that are far. This can happen when a farmer considers only the initial costs (now) in isolation of future costs (which decrease with time).

With the above reasons and possible biases, one wonders how much of the FAO findings were driven by farmer biases and subject to associative thinking, perceptions, and habit – our 95% automatic pilot thinking. Perhaps those would be different if farmers investigated their reasoning, confronted their biases, and made slightly more objective and open decisions.

Paying the price

Although biases are normal, they can be costly. They can lead to decisions, and actions that can cause dormant seasons, result in reduced yield, compromise soil fertility and quality, and exponentially drive-up production costs; affecting output and profitability (a position that has forced some farmers towards closure).

One small but significant avoidance strategy is a sincere shift in perspective when considering the role and impact of biases on farmers’ choices, success, and sustainability. The openness to explore alternative options when once safe options start to fail. Because, when faced with a failing system, the cost of experimenting outside that system is most often nothing compared to continued failure.

  • Mary Maluleke is a junior resource economist with ASSET Research, currently involved with a conservation agriculture project led by Hendrik Smith. In 2019, she obtained a Master of Commerce degree in economics from Rhodes University.

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Conservation agriculture: Address silent change barriers

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