The rich biodiversity of the Ecuadorian cloud forests has fascinated naturalists and tourists for generations, which is why the region has also served as a laboratory for an array of conservation programs and policies. Protecting ecosystems, while ensuring the food supply produced by those ecosystems, requires as much consideration of policy as of plants.
“When policymakers design policies, they need to consider profitability for farmers, productivity, so we can feed everyone, but we also need to make sure we produce all these goods within the planet’s boundaries,” said Valeria Piñeiro, Senior Research Coordinator for the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “Policies around agricultural practices must take into account the effects of soil degradation, water contamination, use of pesticides, and impact on climate change — or else our efforts toward reducing hunger will only be temporary, and with potentially devastating future consequences.”
Piñeiro leads the Policies for Sustainable Practices research team for Ceres2030, a joint project of IFPRI, Cornell University, and the Institute for Sustainable Development, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the German government. Eight teams of diverse researchers have explored overarching issues critical to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of zero global hunger by 2030. The teams cover topics like coping with water-scarcity, developing climate-resilient plants, and strengthening farmers’ organizations — and most of them are focused on finding effective interventions for donors to fund.
Policies for sustainable practices research team
While donor funding is a crucial piece of solving the hunger puzzle, effective government policy is also vital. The Policies team did a scoping review of 18,000 peer-reviewed studies on incentive-based programs, to see whether they led agricultural producers to adopt sustainable practices, and how those practices affected productivity, economic livelihoods, and environmental outcomes.
“Developing countries have big fiscal deficits; they don’t have the resources to do everything, so we wanted to understand which of these interventions is the most effective?” Piñeiro said. “Much of the research looks at specific policies, and adoption by farmers. We went one more step to ask: what outcome was produced by that adoption? Did it make a difference for profitability, productivity, or the environment?”
The research team found that well-intentioned conservation policies may fall flat for a host of reasons: they may be overly complicated; they may rely on enforcement mechanisms that are underfunded; they may involve a short-term adoption incentive for farmers, but when the incentive runs out, so does the farmers’ use of the new technique.
There are effective policies that achieve the goals of sustainable, profitable production. In the Ecuadorian Andes, for example, they found that when conservation technologies were offered alongside measures that enhanced farmers’ short-term profitability, such as new crops, biological barriers, and improved agricultural techniques, adoption of conservation practices increased significantly.
“I think the most important things in developing policy recommendations are that you need to balance the incentive with the outcome, know your farmers so you can design enticing incentives, and make it simple enough for farmers to really do it,” Piñeiro said.
“And most important, you must have a connection between these three pillars: profitability, productivity, and the environment.”
Leslie Lipper is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University, and a technical advisor to the Ceres2030 project. The project has been unique not just in systematically analyzing a broad range of literature, but also in connecting that research in a way that’s useful for policymakers, she said.
“One of the most striking results from the Ceres2030 analyses is the lack of studies on practical questions policy-makers face, such as how much interventions cost and what level of financial and social benefits they generate,” Lipper said. “The project’s work has also shown us where we have some significant gaps in understanding – where we need to focus our research efforts now.”
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