Analysis: a number of behavioural barriers provide a challenge for farmers in terms of reducing agricultural emissions

Given the urgency to tackle the climate crisis, big changes are required to the way Ireland produces food. This is because the Irish agricultural sector is responsible for over one-third of Ireland's total greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the recently published Climate Action Plan set a target to reduce agricultural emissions by between 22 and 30% by 2030.

A key idea to achieve the target is that farmers implement environmentally friendly practices on their farms. Many farmers have already made great progress in this regard, but further changes are needed for overall agricultural emissions to decline.

How can agricultural climate change actions be facilitated?

One important approach is to provide good information. Ireland has a very active farm advisory system which provides farmers with information about best farming practices. One of the most popular advisory methods are farmer discussion groups, where farmers meet on a monthly basis on a group member's farm supported by a farm advisor. At one stage, over half of all dairy farmers in Ireland participated in such groups. It is relatively easy to imagine what these groups are talking about at the moment!

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, a panel of experts discuss a range of environmental and climate change issues relating to farming

Targeted activities specifically focused on climate change mitigation have also been implemented in Ireland. For example, Teagasc launched the Signpost Programme in 2020 to lead climate action by all farmers. Up to 100 demonstration farms are being created around Ireland to showcase best practice, supported by advisors and information campaigns in order to facilitate the uptake of environmentally friendly farm practices.

What are the challenges?

Despite these efforts, there are many things that can stop farmers- just like any other person- from implementing changes. Agricultural advisory services are not always successful in convincing farmers to implement changes on their farms and just providing information sometimes has very little impact.

To make matters worse, people often only hear what they want to hear (this is what behavioural economists call "confirmation bias") or ignore information altogether. For example, some people prefer to be ignorant about whether they are causing harm to the environment or how the food was produced that they are eating. Many farmers certainly use new information and are willing to embrace changes on their farms. But, reaching enough farmers with information and asking them to change their farm practices to achieve the required targets will be challenging.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, farmers react to the Government's Climate Action Plan

People also prefer things to remain the same and this "status quo" bias may explain why some farmers continue to rely on chemical fertilizer as opposed to implementing new grazing methods, such as clover swards to reduce emissions.

The increasing age of Irish farmers does not help to facilitate change. With 30% of farmers over 65 years of age and only 5% of farmers younger than 35, the odds are not great, statistically at least, for implementing new practices on farms. Costs, increased labour, finances and other factors can also prevent farmers from changing their farming practices.

Many of the new environmentally friendly farm practices suggested by the Climate Action Plan also have a considerable learning curve, and things can and do go wrong. In farming, the bad experiences of some farmers often puts others off. Unfortunately, our minds are set up that individual bad events experienced by someone we know (or know of) readily come to mind and are given greater weight than they deserve. Such "availability heuristics" can greatly exaggerate the impact of bad experiences of others. This can have a considerable negative impact on the uptake of new practices, especially in a close-knit community like the farming sector.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Tim Cullinan from the Irish Farmers Association on how targets for emissions cuts will impact the farming sector

Are there any upsides?

Thankfully, things can also work the other way, and good experiences from peers can also have positive effects. Just like anybody else, farmers are more likely to adopt a new technology if their peers are already using it. This is true for milk recording and organic farming, which are both core measures of the Climate Action Plan. This "social learning" is important in all walks of life, and can even be more powerful than learning from experts, such as farm advisors.

Ensuring farmers have good experiences with newly implemented environmentally friendly practices will be important in convincing other farmers to follow suit. This information needs to be provided to farmers in a way that it addresses these behavioural barriers and takes advantage of social learning in order to successfully accelerate already ongoing efforts.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ