Conservation Agriculture: Tackling Barriers to Silent Change

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We value the pain of losing more than the pleasure of winning, warns Mary Maluleke in part two of his series on conservation agriculture. She says more proven localized examples are needed to show how this has improved soil health and increased crop yields. Maluleke is a Junior Resource Economist at ASSET Research.


Have you ever wondered why most brands often market their products as the best, most trusted or #1 in South Africa? I have, and I dreaded such advertisements and I did not like this marketing strategy. One day in a behavioral science class, I asked our teacher why this was the case. He said: “Some things are true, but most are just a strategy that takes advantage of people’s biases.”

Mary Maluleke is a Junior Resource Economist at ASSET Research. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi

This sparked my interest in the subject of the human mind, its biases and how these influence human behavior and show up in our lives, our reasonings and our choices – especially knowing that 95% of our thinking is done using system 1 (intuitive and instinctive) fast thinking, associative, and often our autopilot.

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

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

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

Conservation agricultural practices

Familiarity is a mental (heuristic) shortcut that we often use when sticking with choices that have worked in the past because they are safer and less difficult to make due to pre-existing informational and cognitive limitations. This is a status quo bias and may 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 related to human nature. We intuitively tend to favor the known over the unknown, including known risks over unknown risks (ambiguity aversion bias) and we value the pain of losing more than the pleasure of gaining.

Thus, for a risk-averse and loss-averse farmer, unknown risk and the possibility of loss may influence his decision to continue with the practice he knows and can identify with.

Lack of knowledge is often a problem of access rather than availability. There is enough information about Conservation Agriculture/Regenerative Agriculture, but perhaps not accessible to farmers in a way that they understand.

Embracing easy-to-understand information is key, because we all evaluate the information we have, in a way that matches our thinking and preconceptions (biases). So if a farmer can’t access it or understand it, he can’t assess and question what he already knows.

Dissecting farmers’ biases

The lack of proven localized examples is a big factor because we often look to what others are doing to inform our decisions, hence this marketing strategy (social norm bias). If a practice is applied by most farmers in the area, then it will be applied on the basis of its use by the majority.

Likewise, some farmers will continue with conservation agriculture because firstly it has been historically normalized, or secondly there are not enough local examples to push and encourage them to adopt conservation agriculture/regenerative agriculture .

Although relatively high initial costs seem to be a good reason, it can also hide a present bias, which is the tendency to give more weight to returns closer to the present time than to those that are distant. This can happen when a farmer considers only initial (current) costs independently of future costs (which decrease over time).

With the above reasons and possible biases, it is debatable to what extent the FAO conclusions were farmer-driven and subject to associative thinking, perceptions and habits – our autopilot thinking at 95% . It might be different if farmers studied their reasoning, confronted their biases, and made slightly more objective and open decisions.

Pay the price

Although biases are normal, they can be costly. They can lead to decisions and actions that can cause dormant seasons, lead to reduced yields, compromise soil fertility and quality, and exponentially increase production costs; affecting production and profitability (a position that has forced some farmers to close).

A modest but significant avoidance strategy is to sincerely change perspective when considering the role and impact of biases on farmers’ choices, success and sustainability. Open-mindedness to explore alternative options when once safe options begin to fail. Because, faced with a failing system, the cost of experimentation outside of that system is most often nothing compared to continued failure.

  • Mary Maluleke is a Junior Resource Economist at ASSET Research, currently involved in a conservation agriculture project directed by Hendrik Smith. In 2019, she obtained a Masters of Commerce in Economics from Rhodes University.

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