An insight into the human values underlying organic agriculture

It would seem counterintuitive that emphasising nature would foster deeply human values – at least, from the perspective of human beings as different or separate from the natural world. This is the perspective of most of modern agriculture, one in which the soil is there to be exploited for the production of food, and only secondarily and for that purpose it is fed inorganic nutrients in large quantities; large enough to overflow with them and send those nutrients into rivers, ponds, and seas.

A study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, however, suggests that behind alternative practices or agriculture lies an altogether different set of human values. In Empathy-Conditioned Conservation: "Walking in the Shoes of Others" as a Conservation Farmer, a research paper published by the University in 2011, researchers found that the main motivation behind adopting tillage conservation practices among farmers was an unexpected one: empathy. As this early summary of the research indicates, even though a potential increase in profits, the education received by farmers and the financial support of the government were counted among the variables that influenced whether the farmers adopted conservation tillage practices, a change in these influenced the probability of adoption by around 1% or less. In contrast, having an empathetic mentality (which the authors describe as “tempering the pursuit of self-interest with shared other-interests”) was the single most influential variable, increasing by around 10% the probability of adopting these techniques.

The Blue River in Nebraska, looking downstream. The farmers that take care of the lands on the margins of this river formed the basis for the study's sample.

The study, which used as a sample the farmers around Nebraska and Kansas, in the United States, that had lands surrounding the Blue River, found that empathy played a role depending on how much the farmers regarded that leached soil and nutrients, coming from lands managed without the adequate conservation practices, affected their neighbors downstream. When farmers realized how their neighbors downstream were being affected negatively, the majority of them received a strong motivation to implement conservation practices, which in some areas lead to an adoption of no-till or low-till management schemes in up to 90% of all farms.

To the authors, this is evidence of how “farmers pursue a joint and interdependent own-interest and not only self-interest as presumed in microeconomics”. To policymakers, it should make one thing clear: deeply human values such as empathy are key for the widespread adoption of organic agriculture, as a responsible and sustainable way of producing food for the world. Though economic benefits are certainly a motivation to switch to organic land stewardship, there are otherwise neglected benefits and values that must be brought into the calculations underlying a massive adoption of organic agriculture.

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