Economists and Ecologists brought together by issues of sustainable agriculture in an NCI workshop yesterday

A workshop which brought together economists and ecologists, and organised by the Natural Capital Initiative, took place yesterday at Charles Darwin House. The aim of the event was to facilitate conversation between experts of the two disciplines to discuss how to integrate the knowledge of the participants to inform decision making. The workshop focused on a case study of sustainable agriculture and attracted about 50 economists and ecologists altogether.

The event was chaired by Peter Costigan from Defra and started with a welcome note from the Chief Executive of NERC, Professor Duncan Wingham. To stimulate discussion, the morning continued with keynote presentations focusing on methods of incentivising farmers to adopt environmentally sustainable agricultural practices; Professor William Sutherland of the University of Cambridge provided the ecological perspective, and Professor Ian Bateman of the University of East Anglia gave the economists’ point of view. This was followed by a discussion involving a panel consisting of Mr Costigan, Prof Sutherland and Prof Bateman, as well as Prof Tim Benton of the University of Leeds, Dr. Salvatore Di Falco of the London School of Economics, Prof Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford, and Dr Paul Morling of the RSPB. Members of the panel each gave their ideas of the key issues which need to be addressed in order to facilitate progress towards sustainable agriculture in the UK, and, after questions and comments from the audience, these were summarised into a list to inform the afternoon’s break-out sessions.

After lunch and a chance to network, the audience was split up to 6 groups and each of the groups had to focus on one key issue to develop further, proposing activities which could be undertaken to explore or resolve this issue. Some interesting proposals came from these group discussions:

Issue 1: What is the best way to spend pillar II funds?
Proposal: This proposal aimed at bringing together ecological, economic and social knowledge to inform policy with the aim of reassessing the best way to spend CAP money to ensure farmers ‘do the right thing in the right place’.

Issue 2: How do we incentivise land managers to ‘do the right thing’ in the right place?
Proposal: Similarly to the first proposal, this group also focused on what management should be done where, but considered the issue from a different angle, suggesting that ecosystem services will be protected most effectively by combining top down and bottom up processes. A change to the structure of how funds are allocated to land managers were proposed, including a ‘bidding process’ and regional control of the ‘pot of money’.

Issue 3: Behaviour change to enhance resilience to shocks
Proposal: This group suggested a comprehensive study of farmer and consumer behaviour across different regions and farming types designed to identify the gap between desirable farm management and current behaviour and possible reasons for this. This would allow suitable incentives to be identified and employed.

Issue 4: Achieving a spatial balance of management activity on farmland
Proposal: This proposal aimed to change farmers’ behaviour by organising consultations and testing how land managers’ responded to different possible farming incentives.

Issue 5: ‘Better choice of choice’
Proposal: This group focused on product labeling and the possibility of integrating ecosystem services into existing certification schemes (e.g. Fairtrade, FSC, MSC).

Issue 6: Where do we need bees? A case study of spatial targeting of agriculture
Proposal: The final group’s idea was to better target agricultural incentives spatially by collecting existing knowledge, filling knowledge gaps and developing a GIS tool to help decision making for farmers. They demonstrated the idea through a case study on pollination services.

All of the proposals were strongly built on interdisciplinary or even intersectoral co-operation between ecologists, economists and other stakeholders. Four out of the six plans focused on spatial arrangements of agricultural incentives, suggesting that ecologists and economists alike think a critical problem with current initiatives lies in a lack of spatial planning and targeting of farmland management measures.

At the end of the workshop, the proposals were rated by participants based on their importance and feasibility. It was interesting to see that proposals which got more votes for importance generally got fewer votes for feasibility and vice versa. The winning scheme for importance was proposal 2, which focused on how to encourage farmers to “do the right thing in the right place”, whilst the most feasible proposal was voted to be proposal 6 on spatial planning with the case study on bees.

The feedback from participants was that it was a day of interesting and fruitful discussions, and hopefully some seeds of ideas for further research and co-operation between ecologists and economist were planted yesterday.

Additional information on the workshop and the full program can be downloaded from the workshop’s webpage.