Innovations aren’t wines; they don’t improve sitting on the shelf

27 Oct 2021

Innovation projects aim to develop solutions to pressing problems of our times. Innovation takes place in companies, research institutes or universities, these projects aim to make the world a better place, make more money or, looking at the space race between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, are just for fun. It all hinges on the innovator’s aims and aspirations. However, innovations are not fine wines, they don’t get any better languishing on a shelf, they need to get out into the world…..or outer atmosphere if that’s your goal! In a nutshell, the transition from idea on a page to actual implementation is crucial.

In the SIMBA project, we aim to develop novel microbial technologies that will help make agricultural systems more sustainable and fit for the future. Microbial applications can improve the sustainability of the agricultural system if they meet two conditions: i) they are effective and ii) they are adopted by farmers. At WUR, we have nothing to do with the first part – that’s taken care of by our SIMBA colleagues. As the only social scientists in the SIMBA consortium, we look on enviously at colleagues conducting field experiments under bright blue skies, while we sit behind our computers, wracking our brains on whether farmers will use the innovations our colleagues develop.

There are incredible microbial innovations on the market already, including some from our SIMBA partners in CCS Aosta and Agriges. But why aren’t they being used by farmers everywhere? This question has dominated our work over the last few months, as we investigated the drivers and barriers to famer’s uptake of novel microbial technologies.

In the Western world these drivers and barriers are, more often than not, of psychological nature, rather than of structural or environmental. That means that it is more important to consider what farmers consciously think or unconsciously feel when deciding to adopt an innovation. Therefore, we focus on the behavioural aspects governing the uptake of microbial applications.

Considering that these behaviours are not directly measurable nor observable, how do we investigate them? To do this we conducted two studies. Both began with an online survey. The first survey was based on the so-called Behavioural Change Wheel (BCW). The BCW is a method used to break-down the underlying reason for a behaviour into capability, opportunity and motivation (COM-B). The BCW then translates the findings into interventions and policy recommendations to change the examined behaviour. We wanted to find the behavioural drivers and barriers to the adoption of microbial applications and provide recommendations to overcome these barriers.

The second study consisted of two parts, namely an online experiment and an incentivised lottery – a well-known strategy for observing risk taking behaviours. As part of the experiment, a random half of the group of farmers were assigned to watch an informational video on microbial applications. We wanted to know whether the video increased the farmers’ likelihood of adopting microbial applications. With the lotteries we wanted to know whether risk averse farmers were more or less reluctant to adopt microbial applications.

In the BCW-based study, we saw that knowledge on microbial applications and external support from farming organisations is lacking. Farmers would appreciate access to informed advisors who are more knowledgeable about new microbial applications. Where this information comes from is important to farmers. Ideally advice should come from farming organisations who understand their needs rather than governmental institutions. In the second study, we saw that risk attitudes marginally influence the intention to use microbial applications: farmers that are more risk averse are reluctant to use these new microbial applications. Furthermore, we saw that viewing the informational video can indeed spark the interest and intention to adopt microbial applications significantly.

Based on these findings, we know that it is important to develop an environment that encourages farmers to use microbial applications. Farmer organisations and cooperatives need to be aware of the opportunities that microbial applications have to offer and facilitate access to these opportunities through organised information sessions and encouraging field trials or site visits. Easy-to-understand sources of information, like the video, are key.

We hope that our findings will ultimately help to bring microbial products to the market and show innovators how to promote their uptake. When thinking of ways to share these insights (multipliers), we highly encourage cooperation with farmers organisations, advisers, and cooperatives rather than governmental institutions.

Currently, our partners at LUKE are working on the social and environmental life cycle assessment of microbial applications, while we analyse the economic impacts of microbial applications on the food system. Our next step will be to synthesise these analyses and conduct an overall sustainability analysis considering social, environmental and economic aspects of microbial applications. This will be a vital step in ensuring that innovations developed in SIMBA innovation get off the shelf and into the hands of people who can use and apply the new knowledge and techniques.