pilgrims walking along a road

In land management, always tackle the social issue first

It amazes me how much knowledge humanity has accumulated. Even more baffling is how we fail to use it.

Think of any topic, detail, or weird example, however obscure, and a human has been there, recording it for posterity on Tic-Toc. 

Ubiquitous human curiosity means that any academic topic has also been pursued into its dim recesses. I disappeared for years into the feeding behaviour of spirostreptid millipedes. Believe it or not, that was a career move.

When it comes to growing food and the soils where the food plants grow, farmers and the scientists who support them know what is going on. This makes sense, given humans have been at agriculture for 12,000 years.

We know about nutrients, soil carbon, and the impact of pests and disease. We know how and when to irrigate crops and when to send the cattle to market.

We can even predict from historic patterns and, using sophisticated soil models, how all these things will change given various disruptions, including climate change. We can “see” the land in extraordinary detail from satellites or sensors attached to drones in real-time and then send a remote-controlled machine to deliver fertiliser or pesticides in exactly the right spot for maximum effect.

Even before all the hi-tech wizardry, farmers could find a way to cope with natural climate variability, extreme weather events and wildfire. They figured out how to match management practices to environmental conditions for optimal yields and some of them even know how to achieve sustainable use of the land resource.

In short, humans are extraordinary.

drone flying over a field of oil seed rape

Drones are increasingly used in agriculture to monitor crops. Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Pressures on food production 

All this knowledge capture is handy because along with finding 23 trillion calories a day to feed everyone, the pressures on the global food system are increasing. 

The big picture view, summarised in a review of sustainable land management for global food security (Henry et al 2018), is that the pressures on food production come from

  1. growing demand for food in both quantity (kilojoules of energy) and quality (proportion of animal protein in the diet) for an expanding and wealthier global  population 
  1. competition for productive land with other land use especially biofuel, urban expansion and other non-food uses 
  1. land use and land management practices that degrade land and diminish soil health by lowering nutrient levels and organic content; 
  1. global supply chains and agribusiness that drive down prices for farmers, pressuring them to farm intensively and unsustainably; and
  1. impacts of anthropogenic climate change that increase year-on-year variation in yield and frequency of extreme weather that threatens the resilience of agroecosystems and the stability of food production. 

So even though we know what should be done, these kinds of pressures are immediate and impact the capacity to act on what we know.

close up of a wheat crop ready for harvest

In 2020, the total global production of wheat was 760 million tons. Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash

How farmers use knowledge

Farmers are truly courageous human beings. 

They take on incredible financial and personal risk when they invest blood, sweat, tears, and money in a cropping cycle or in rearing livestock. The last thing they want is to try something because it might be helpful. They need to know it will work. Few farmers have the luxury to absorb an opportunity cist.

Farmers prefer to know that innovation will work before adopting it. Remember, it has taken 12,000 years of trial and error to arrive at the current methods. Novelty has been weeded out over the millennia, replaced by the tried and tested.

For example, Aune and Bationo (2008) observed that land managers in the African Sahel adopted improved practices in sequential steps rather than through a radical change. Similarly, in Nepal, the intensification of agriculture needed an initial move to eradicate malaria to improve the welfare and capacity of the people (Raut et al., 2011). 

Farmers are more comfortable with what they know. This knowledge comes from experience, local history and culture, including what their buddies tell them over a few beers in the pub.

All the accumulated knowledge is both vast and local. 

So farmers in the Sahel have no way of knowing that data from a drone might help their cattle. Nor do they know how to use such technical information. What they know about where to graze the cattle works. It comes from tradition passed down through the generations and the cattle grow well when it rains, survive when it’s dry and provide enough for the people to persist. It always has.

Except that now all the cultural bets are off. Thanks to fossil fuel inputs and technological advances in medicine and welfare, there are many more people than before. The climate is changing and the soil is depleted.

Suddenly, innovation is essential for survival.

outback homestead in Australia

Typical outback homestead in Australia. Photo by Alloporus.

How to get knowledge used

When traditional agricultural practices no longer meet the needs of a local population or the farmer’s bottom line, there are two options. 

The first is to subsidise the food and welfare needs from outside. This happens in cities all the time. Urbanites live on a food subsidy from outside the city. External support is increasing on many farms, where a family member or two takes a job outside the farm.

The second is to change the land management practices to grow more food.

Scientists have become fond of suggesting ways to achieve the second option. 

Let’s take a look at one example of nine ways to improve land management practices outlined by Winterbottom et al. (2013) for the World Resources Institute with sustainably FED comments based on what we have seen happen on the ground: 

  1. Strengthen knowledge management systems and access to information. 

This recommendation is standard; just use knowledge. The challenge is that knowledge is not easy to manage because it needs understanding and insight before implementation. Access to knowledge is easier than it has ever been. Just type anything into Google Scholar and off you go. However, there are skills needed to interpret what you find—just having a Zotero database of reference is not a knowledge management system.

  1. Increase communication and outreach, using champions and direct engagement with farmers. 

Always a good thing to do, but without a value proposition, engagement is hard to maintain. Farmers are naturally cautious, and they have every right to be. Their livelihood depends on making the right calls.

  1. Foster connections between communities and government and non-government institutions to enhance knowledge sharing

Many rural communities are not fond of government. The command and control tension in the air is the delicate balance in the social contract. Farmers are often libertarians with a strong will to make their own decisions. Getting the top in the same room as the bottom is a challenge.

  1. Establish demonstration sites on landholders’ properties, and develop networks of landholders (or use existing networks where applicable), to encourage cooperation and communication between landholders and provide a focal point for promoting SLM practices. 

We have been to a lot of these properties and they are usually great, standing out like a sore thumb in the landscape. All that green grass and a procession of government and bureaucrat visitors can leave the farmer without any mates down the pub. As we know from any streaming service, people everywhere get jealous and catty.

  1. Support institutional and policy reforms, particularly for strengthening property rights. 

We have tried to do this ourselves. It is very hard. Policy wonks are often subject agnostic. They are technocrats with an understanding of legislation but no idea what carbon does in soils. By the time you have explained the basics of soil health, they are asleep.

  1. Support capacity building, particularly in community-based management of natural resources. 

This one is good, notwithstanding that social contract we mentioned at #3. The reality is that communities manage resources anyway. They already have capacity so sucking eggs becomes a problem.

  1. Increase support for integrated landscape management that brings together sectors and stakeholders from agriculture (including grazing and cropping), intensive agriculture, forestry, urban and conservation to jointly plan, design, and manage their landscapes and institutional resources for improved agricultural production, biodiversity and ecosystem conservation and sustainable livelihoods. 

In the sustainably FED team, we have more than 100 years of professional experience working with these stakeholders and we are yet to see them come together in anything other than to argue their corner. Cooperation is the answer but it has to be agreed because social capital is a fickle resource

  1. Reinforce economic incentives and private sector engagement.

Eventually, the consumer must pay a realistic price for the commodities they enjoy. But the economic system is designed around profit and rent—the most efficient ways to convert natural capital into cash and financial assets. Letting that system loose on natural capital got us into the unsustainable mess we are in.

  1. Mainstream investments to catalyse adoption of these practices as a strategic component of food security and climate change adaptation programs. 

Ask Albert what he thinks.

dairy cows on alpine pasture

Tradition creates huge inertia in agricultural management practices—same cows on the same pasture for generations. Photo by Luca Basili on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests…

We don’t like the World Resources Institute’s suggestions for improving land management. They are naive at best. We present them because they show how hard it is to deliver a top-down improvement to land management, however well-intentioned. 

Sustainably FED favours options for management that can leverage human psychology. Knowledge on its own will not change behaviour. Emotions change people: guilt, passion, fear, hope.

So our suggestion is to 

  1. use the science to show the consequences of past, current and future land management on the various values people gain from land use and then 
  1. offer up options for behaviour change, then
  1. let the people decide for themselves

Evidence sources for this post

Henry, B., Murphy, B., & Cowie, A. (2018). Sustainable land management for environmental benefits and food security. A Synthesis Report for the GEF (Global Environmental Facility). GEF, Washington, DC, USA.

Aune, J. B., & Bationo, A. (2008). Agricultural intensification in the Sahel–The ladder approach. Agricultural systems, 98(2), 119-125.

Raut, N., Sitaula, B. K., Aune, J. B., & Bajracharya, R. M. (2011). Evolution and future direction of intensified agriculture in the central mid-hills of Nepal. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(4), 537-550.

Winterbottom, R., and others, (2013). Improving land and water management. Working Paper, Instalment 4 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.

Should your curiosity stretch to the aforementioned feeding behaviour of millipedes, check out any of these on Google scholar:

Dangerfield J.M., Telford S.R. (1993) Aggregation in the tropical millipede Alloporus uncinatus (Diplopoda: Spirostreptidae). Journal of Zoology 230: 503-511

Dangerfield J.M., Milner A.E., Matthews R. (1993) Seasonal activity patterns and behaviour of juliform millipedes in south-eastern Botswana. Journal of Tropical Ecology 8: 451-464

Dangerfield J.M., Milner A.E. (1993) Ingestion and assimilation of leaf litter in some tropical millipedes. Journal of Zoology 229: 683-693

Dangerfield J.M. (1993) Ingestion of mineral soil/litter mixtures and faecal pellet production in the southern African millipede Alloporus uncinatus (Attems). Pedobiologia 37: 159-166

Dangerfield, J.M. & Kaunda S.K. (1994) Millipede behaviour in a savanna woodland habitat in south-east Botswana. African Journal of Ecology 32: 337-341

Dangerfield J.M., Milner A.E. (1996) Millipede faecal pellet production in selected natural and managed habitats of southern Africa: Implications for litter dynamics. Biotropica 28(1): 113-120

The things we do, hey.

Hero image from photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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