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Uncovering lock-ins and levers to encourage farmers to move to and stay in sustainable, climate-neutral and biodiversity-friendly farming systems: from experiments to systemic mechanisms


Although the EU has made strides in improving the sustainability of agriculture, substantial efforts are still needed to achieve the ambitious targets of the European Green Deal, in particular the farm to fork strategy and the objectives of the future CAP. Many emerging approaches, such as agroecology[[ ]] (including organic farming), etc., have the potential to make farming systems more sustainable in climate, environmental, economic and social terms. However, multiple ‘lock-ins’ are preventing farmers from scaling the transition up and out to more sustainable production systems. Policy and business shifts are needed to help them escape from the ‘lock-ins’ and change at the requisite pace. An in-depth understanding of farmers’ ‘lock-ins’ and ‘levers’ is key to spurring large-scale and lasting shifts to sustainable farming systems. Behavioural and experimental research that unpacks the decision-making involved in adopting sustainable practices holds significant potential when it comes to identifying ‘lock-ins’ and ‘levers’, thereby improving the effectiveness of the CAP and contributing to the successful implementation of the farm to fork strategy. In addition to unpacking the pieces of the behavioural (decision-making) puzzle, it is important to compile a wider, more comprehensive picture of the food systems in which farmers operate and of their governance, structures, mechanisms and dynamics that lock them into unsustainable practices or incentivise them to take and stay on a sustainable path.

Proposals should investigate farmers’ decision-making (behaviour) and the broader food systems in which they have to operate (and/or create collective action), so as to uncover what locks them into unsustainable practices and what incentivises them to move to and stay in sustainable production systems. Attention should be paid to the full range of decision-making factors (e.g. behavioural, economic/regulatory, knowledge, biophysical, gender, cultural, etc.) and food systems’ structures, mechanisms and dynamics (e.g. feedback loops, trade-offs and synergies, etc.).

Proposals should take a comprehensive behavioural approach and investigate proximal and distal factors to understand farmers’ behaviour (decision-making) better, in order to inform the design and implementation of policies (in particular the CAP) and the European Green Deal initiatives (in particular farm to fork and biodiversity strategies). Extensive experimental research should cover, for instance (but not limited to) ‘nudges’, voluntary schemes or mandatory regulation, to fill gaps in policy-oriented research and support effective, evidence-based policy design and implementation.

It is also important to analyse behaviour (decision-making) of other food system actors and their role in/influence on hindering or incentivising farmers’ decisions as to whether to adopt and maintain sustainable practices in the long-term. To this end, proposals should thoroughly analyse consumers’ preferences (habits, choices), decision-making and shopping behaviour, in particular looking at market segmentation and willingness to pay versus buying acts, in various contexts. This knowledge should be shared broadly with farmers, so that they can respond better to changes in consumer demand, which is a strategic CAP objective. In addition, proposals should explore the behaviour (decision-making) and actions of downstream and upstream operators in agri-food value chains (e.g. input industry, food companies, retailers, hospitality industry, etc.) and other relevant food system actors that lock farmers in unsustainable practices or enable/encourage them to adopt sustainable practices and stimulate or hinder consumer demand for more sustainable food.

With an interdisciplinary lens, proposals should also consider the ‘whole-systems’ in which farmers operate and analyse the systemic mechanisms, structures and dynamics that lock farmers (and landowners) into unsustainable states and ways to break away, build collective interest for and incentivise them to move to and remain in sustainable farming systems.

Concurrent research should be conducted using the same (or similar) methods in a variety of settings representative of the diversity in agri-food systems and conditions in the EU and Associated Countries (e.g. a wide range of farm typologies, diverse farming systems, including (but not limited to) various agroecological approaches and organic farming, sectors/value chains, collective actions, regions and communities, etc.) in order to be able to derive meaningful conclusions on the general validity of decision-making (behavioural) factors and systemic insights across countries and contexts.

Proposals should also explore and propose ways to engage diverse food system operators and actors (e.g. through innovative policies, improved farmers’ organisation, social innovation or new business models, etc.), in enabling farmers to move to and stay in sustainable farming systems.

Based on the research results, proposals should formulate and disseminate widely to relevant actors:

  1. policy recommendations and innovative policy options, in particular for the CAP, environmental policies, and relevant Green Deal initiatives; and
  2. business strategies (including the identification of end markets for sustainable products on a cross-sectoral basis);

for encouraging farmers to lastingly adopt sustainable practices and progressively raise their sustainability performance.

The possible participation/contribution of the JRC in the project would consist of being involved in the selection of policies, business models and market conditions to be tested, the design of the experiments and the formulation of the policy recommendations.

Proposals should build and expand on the achievements of past and current research and innovation (R&I) projects, e.g. those funded under topic SFS-29-2017[[ ]]. Collaboration with future projects to be selected under topic HORIZON-CL6-2021-FARM2FORK-01-09 is encouraged. This topic should involve the effective contribution of SSH disciplines.