Picture the inside of your local grocery store. What do you see on the shelves around you? How many different products can you count just in the produce section alone?
For many of us in the Global North, it seems only natural that we have access to such a bounty of foods from all over the world. But in truth, this astounding quantity and variety of food is only possible because of a vast global supply chain, a system that employs more than a quarter of the earth’s working population.1 In many low-income countries, agriculture is the single biggest employer.
This sprawling, interconnected system is what allows us to indulge in so many different foods and flavors on a daily basis. But it comes at a huge environmental cost. It’s estimated that agriculture is responsible for 8.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions,2 with another 14.5% coming from land use change. This includes a large amount of deforestation in the Global South, where cutting down trees is often necessary to clear land for additional food production.
How agriculture is eroding the Amazon
The Brazilian Amazon is a major site of deforestation, 70% of which is done to make room for cattle.3 In 2021, rates of deforestation in the rainforest hit their highest since the early 2000s,4 a trend that could have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Ordinarily, the Amazon’s 390 billion trees5 act as a powerful carbon sink, estimated to be holding onto 86 billion tons of excess carbon. When these trees are cut down, much of this is released back into the atmosphere as CO2, accelerating climate change and its disastrous effects.
It’s essential that we find routes to more sustainable agriculture. But in the context of such a complex supply chain, moving the needle on this issue is not small feat. In order to make a dent in emissions, there will need to be collaboration all across the whole supply chain, from food producers, to policymakers, to corporate employers.
This problem is a major focus of Solidaridad,6 an international civil society organization working to foster more sustainable supply chains around the world. In the Amazon, they’d been working with cocoa and livestock smallholder farmers to promote low-carbon family farming — for example, implementing agroforestry production systems with cocoa on degraded lands.
Through their work, Solidaridad had realized that one of the issues at play was about misaligned incentives. Most climate-smart agricultural practices, such as restoring native vegetation or implementing agroforestry, require more upfront investment and take longer to yield a profit compared to traditional practices. There is little motivation for farmers to sacrifice so much upfront — potentially losing income or jeopardizing their financial health — all for gains that won’t materialize for several years.
In order to encourage widespread behavior change, there need to be incentives that make these sustainable alternatives appealing to agricultural workers. Solidaridad approached us to help them identify and digitize suitable incentives.
A blueprint for a behavioral change
How can you build a single system to change the behavior of more than a billion people around the world? The answer is that you can’t: behavior change is too complex and too individualized. Instead, our work with Solidaridad focused on building a methodology — a structured process for building incentive frameworks, for any population in any location worldwide.
We laid out a step-by-step process for identifying each region’s unique “incentive formula”: which sustainable farming incentives are likely to work in a given area, what specific mixture would be most effective, and how they could be put into practice in the real world. We put it into practice through some hands-on fieldwork in Brazil, facilitated by senior Solidaridad employees who traveled to the Amazon and used our methodology to interview farmers there, face to face.
Our research left us with a behavior change framework to encourage and speed up adoption of climate-smart practices in the municipalities where Solidaridad operates in the Brazilian Amazon. But the approach we developed can be used by Solidaridad to achieve behavioral change at scale, empowering food producers to adopt more climate-smart, efficient farming methods.
Getting to the roots of the problem
In the fight against climate change, top-down solutions like policy and regulation will play an important role. But equally important are solutions built from the ground up, with direct input from people on the ground. Our work underscored the reality that there are no “one-size-fits-all” tools for behavior change; in order to make progress, we need to be equipped to build customized solutions at scale.
Our findings from the Amazon illustrate this reality perfectly. In some of their past work in South Africa, Solidaridad had found that social norms were a powerful motivator for adopting sustainable farming behaviors: as they chatted with neighbors and acquaintances at the market, farmers would come to learn about practices being adopted by others in their community, and this could in turn influence their own choices.
But in the Brazilian context, the role of social norms was a little more complex. The farmers we spoke to, far from bumping into one another at the market, often lived many hectares apart; instead of habitual physical interaction, they conversed largely over WhatsApp. This still allowed them to gather information about their neighbors’ practices, but eliminated a lot of the persuasive power of social norms. The approach we designed during this project will allow Solidaridad to detect differences like these, and understand how programs can be customized for different populations.
Planting the seeds for a better future
Climate change is well underway, with global carbon emissions showing no signs of slowing.7 Addressing the problem of climate change means implementing sustainable solutions at scale, quickly.
Our goal in working with Solidaridad was to develop a foundational framework to guide an agricultural revolution: a flexible system that can be reused anywhere, to identify what needs to happen to support local farmers in transitioning to new, sustainable methods. Through this methodology, we’re laying the groundwork for a global effort to climate-proof our food systems, and to ensure that the people who feed our planet have the security they need to take these important steps.
- Cassidy, E. (2020, May 4). Map of the Month: How Many People Work in Agriculture? Resource Watch Blog. https://blog.resourcewatch.org/2019/05/30/map-of-the-month-how-many-people-work-in-agriculture/#:%7E:text=Globally%2C%20about%201%20billion%20people,down%20from%2044%25%20in%201991
- Carbon: greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. (n.d.). Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). https://ahdb.org.uk/carbon
- Butler, R. A. (2022, February 25). Facts about the Amazon Rainforest. Mongabay. https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon-rainforest-facts.html
- BBC News. (2021, November 19). Brazil: Amazon sees worst deforestation levels in 15 years. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-59341770
- Butler, R. A. (2020, August 14). Rainforests: tropical forest facts, photos, and information. Mongabay. https://rainforests.mongabay.com
- Solidaridad. (2022, May 17). Solidaridad Network. Solidaridad Network. https://www.solidaridadnetwork.org
- NASA Global Climate Change. (n.d.). Carbon Dioxide Concentration. NASA. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/