This article has been translated with DeepL.

NEW RESEARCH | How to make farmers more environmentally friendly – and competitive!

Farmers create wetlands to be more sustainable.
Photo: Canva/Magnus Karlsson.

Wetlands can provide better and more consistent harvests. Despite this, few farmers are investing in it. Halmstad researcher Anna Hansson knows what it takes to make agriculture more environmentally friendly and economically sustainable.

Agriculture is important for our food supply, for jobs and for biodiversity. But agriculture also puts too much nutrients into the aquatic environment of our lakes and seas. Many farmers take minor measures to reduce eutrophication, which has a major negative impact on water quality.

– For example, intercropping is used to reduce nitrogen leaching from arable land. The crop grows during the period between two main crops and is often plowed down without being harvested,” says Anna Hansson, Halmstad University.

– While this is good, it is not enough to reduce eutrophication in the Baltic Sea and on the west coast.

Important to find a win-win

For society to achieve its sustainability goals, more farmers need to engage in sustainable business model innovation. Constructing major water-related environmental measures, such as wetlands, is an important step. And there is both Swedish and EU money available to help with such devices. But farmers almost exclusively apply for support for short-term light measures. So the problem of eutrophication remains.

– Sustainable food production is key to protecting our ecosystems and water resources. To achieve the SDGs, we need to find win-win situations between agriculture’s need for profitability and society’s sustainability goals. And the existing subsidies are a tool for this, but they need to be made visible and expanded.

Identify themselves mainly as entrepreneurs

In her doctoral thesis, Anna Hansson has studied the obstacles and incentives for farmers to construct wetlands, and how society can support agriculture to transition to more sustainable business models.

– Farmers see themselves primarily as entrepreneurs, not environmentalists. They focus on production and see a wetland as something besides the value-creating activities. Many people find it difficult to see the economic benefits of wetlands. But we know that they can contribute to better and more consistent harvests because they provide greater resistance to drought and flooding. So farmers have a lot to gain from it.

Support systems for business model innovation

In order to encourage farmers to move towards more sustainable business models, society in some places is investing significant resources in providing practical help with wetland creation, in addition to financial compensation. Anna Hansson followed a number of action coordinators from the national LEVA project run by the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management 2018-2023. The coordinators were tasked with supporting the entrepreneurs throughout the wetland creation process.

– In addition to covering the costs, the coordinators adapt the initiative to each entrepreneur’s circumstances. They provide information on the business benefits of a wetland, and help with the application process to the authorities and the procurement of contractors to carry out the work on the wetland,” says Anna Hansson.

Economically efficient with coordinators

Of course, it can be costly if every farmer has an action coordinator to help them with the whole wetland project. But Anna Hansson still sees that society would benefit from such an arrangement.

– The alternative is that farmers themselves make applications to authorities and liaise with all contractors involved in the installation. This would be inefficient for both farmers and authorities. It is better that coordinators who know how to do things do the administrative work.

– In addition, the results of my studies show that it discourages many farmers from even considering wetlands if they have to manage the whole process themselves.

One time becomes many times

The study also found that farmers who have once applied for financial support for water management measures to work towards more environmentally sustainable food production are inclined to take more measures.

– Either of the same size, but above all on a larger scale. So once you have taken a small measure, such as working with catch crops, you are then willing to make a larger investment. This is why the support of a coordinator to get the actions started is so important. It is an important piece of the puzzle for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Anna Hansson.


Five success factors for the success of action coordinator schemes

  • Clarify the economic value of the intervention. Coordinators have an important role to play in showing farmers how to capture sustainability values in their business model by building a wetland, for example. This allows the entrepreneur to better understand how their business objectives can be aligned with society’s sustainability goals.

  • Action coordinators should work in teams. They all have different skills that they share with each other, so they can help farmers from start to finish when creating wetlands.

  • Build a digital knowledge platform for greater efficiency. As coordinators have different backgrounds and share knowledge between each other, there is a great demand from both farmers and coordinators for a digital knowledge platform where all experiences are gathered.

  • Supporting farmers from idea to implementation. An action coordinator should be involved in the whole process of water management measures, such as wetlands. The intervention should also be adapted to the perceived obstacles and drivers of the farmer.

  • Double the number of action coordinators. Today, 40-50 action coordinators are active in Sweden, and according to the Eutrophication Inquiry, around 80 are needed to cover the total need.

More about the thesis
Anna Hansson recently defended her dissertation at Halmstad University with the thesis Get it off the ground – Facilitating water-related environmental measures to support agricultural managers in business model innovation processes for sustainability .

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