On-Farm Uptake of Microbial Applications

01 Oct 2020

In an era of climate change and environmental degradation, we are faced with the challenge of feeding a growing world population, on limited land, in a sustainable manner. Our ecosystems and biodiversity are in a concerning state, which adversely affects, but is also partly caused by agricultural production. While agrochemicals and optimised agronomic practices bring major advances in efficiency and the usage of artificial nitrogen fertilisers increases crop yields, these practices also degrade agricultural lands. To combat food insecurity, climate change and degradation of land, environmentally friendly innovations need to be integrated into efficient economically viable agricultural production systems. Modernising pathways to sustainability relies, amongst other things, on the enhancement of ecosystem services, by exploiting ecological processes such as plant-microbial interactions. Whilst effective and reproducible microbial field applications are under investigation in SIMBA, at Wageningen University (WUR) we are investigating the societal aspects of the uptake.

The demand for microbial applications is expected to rise for several reasons. These include tightening of regulations in the EU, fewer chemical pesticides being permitted for use and controversial chemical substances disappearing from the product portfolios of suppliers. As a result, farmers will have to depend on alternative products. Further, if the current trend continues, shifts in consumer demand towards sustainable food products are to be expected. Producers should be prepared to offer affordable, more sustainable food and suppliers should be prepared to provide the necessary products for production. At the same time, producers will face more and more extreme weather events and need to deal with changing environmental circumstances. Microorganisms might be deployed as a remedy against the impacts of intensified climate change effects, such as degraded soils and droughts; they can support a transition towards more sustainable food production and provide alternatives to chemicals that are taken off the market.

To date microbial products registered for agricultural use include only a small fraction of potential markets. In concert with the enhancement of microbial applications to use in agricultural production, we are investigating potential causes for farmers’ reluctance to use microbial applications to ease product placement and market launch in later stages. As part of this research, we investigate the drivers and barriers for farmers to adopt microbial applications in their arable farming processes. These drivers and barriers are most likely embedded in farmer’s attitudes towards microbial applications. Education, colleagues as role models and prevailing understandings potentially influence a farmer’s attitude. Misconceptions can hinder the adoption as much as positive examples from peers can foster it. Based on our findings, we will suggest intervention strategies to promote the uptake of novel microbial applications on farms in Europe.

In our study, we conducted an online survey among Dutch, German, Italian and Finnish arable farmers. SIMBA partners jointly distributed the link to the survey in their countries. We used the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW) with its COM-B (Capability, Opportunity and Motivation-Behaviour) model to design the survey. The COM-B elements, as well as farmer and farm characteristics and qualitative answers, offer valuable clues about drivers and barriers to the intended adoption of microbial applications by arable farmers. Besides, the BCW allows easy inferences from drivers and barriers to intervention suggestions.

Figure 1: Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW) (Atkins & Michie 2015). 10.1017/S0029665115000075.

Respondent data were gathered in June and July 2020 and we are currently analysing the results of about 240 full responses. The study provides a better understanding of why farmers are reluctant to adopt microbial applications and what could support the uptake. The insights will help to design effective intervention strategies from the commercial side as well as political. Apart from widely known aspects influencing the adoption of farm innovations like age and level of education, we expect to also see differences in the COM elements which predict different levels of intention to adopt microbial applications. This allows us to find dedicated ways of incentivising the on-farm uptake of microbial applications through training or monetary incentives for specific groups of farmers.

Written by: Annika Tensi, Wageningen University. For more information, please contact: annika.tensi@wur.nl