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Could the new eco schemes replace the long-known agri-environmental measures in Flanders?

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Soukaina Anougmar
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Agricultural intensification has noticeably increased food production over time. Yet, it burdens natural resources, giving rise to environmental impacts that necessitate careful consideration. Therefore, European agricultural policies have been undergoing significant transformations to address these and other emerging challenges and promote sustainable practices. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), launched in 1962, aims to establish a European common market for agricultural products and to provide income support for farmers, amongst others, through regulation of prices and increasing agricultural productivity. The latest reform of the CAP entered into force in January 2023 and will end in 2027. The CAP's new "green architecture" includes both enhanced conditionality and places more emphasis on voluntary measures for farmers and land managers. These voluntary measures include both agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs, which already existed in previous CAP versions) and newly introduced Eco-schemes. The well-known AECMs are multi-annual (most often 5-year) contracts between farmers (or land managers) and the government. Eco-schemes are instruments in the form of 1-year ecological engagements between farmers and the government. Because of the voluntary nature of both AECMs and Eco-schemes, farmers' adoption of these measures plays a crucial role in advancing sustainable agricultural practices and addressing environmental challenges. Identifying farmers' viewpoints and preferences regarding voluntary schemes is paramount to informing local policymaking and designing more effective interventions. Therefore, within the agricultural case study of PATTERN, we aim to generate insights into the diversity of perspectives and preferences among farmers concerning the AECMs and Eco-schemes.

Two different scientific methodologies are applied in the PATTERN project on the Flemish agricultural case study by the University of Antwerp in collaboration with the Flemish Land Agency (VLM): the Q methodology and Discrete Choice Experiments (DCEs). The Q methodology is applied to analyze perceptions regarding the voluntary measures designed for farmers and land managers in Flanders in the previous CAP. By employing the Q methodology, diverse viewpoints of farmers on the AECMs can be captured and explored. This sheds light on the barriers and motivators for adopting voluntary agri-environmental measures in the future. The unique contribution of the case study lies in its dedicated exploration of the ex-post dimension within the context of AECMs. By concentrating on farmers who have previously engaged with AECMs, the analysis sheds light on how these experiences shape attitudes toward the measures over time.
Practically, the Q methodology performs an analysis of sorted 'statements'. These statements should reflect diverse opinions on multiple aspects of a specific topic. After selecting statements, they are sorted by the target group (i.e., farmers in this case) on a grid. The sorting grid is a table with a quasi-normal distribution in which participants rank the statements. More detailed information on the Q Methodology can be found in D1.2 of the PATTERN project; check the Library to download and read the full document.

In the Flemish agricultural case study, we also employ Discrete Choice Experiments (DCEs) to explore the preferences and choices of Flemish farmers regarding the newly introduced Eco-schemes and revised Agri-environment-climate measures (AECM) in the context of the recent reform of the CAP. The findings shed light on the potential impact of these policy changes and provide valuable insights for policymakers aiming to enhance sustainability and address environmental challenges in agriculture. The Discrete Choice Experiment (DCE) is a survey-based methodology designed to assess people's preferences and the trade-offs they are willing to make when faced with (hypothetical) choice situations. We conducted a two-staged DCE, a stated preferences method, on a sample of 390 farmers in Flanders. A labeled DCE design was used, giving farmers the option of choosing between three labeled options: an “AECM contract,” an “Eco-scheme contract,” and a “no contract” option. A set of attributes and levels were selected, which correspond to the different elements of these contracts. After data collection via a survey, choice data is analyzed using choice models. More detailed information about the DCE methodology can be found in D1.2, available for download in the Library.

The Q methodology resulted in the identification of four distinct types of farmers based on their attitudes and perceptions toward agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs): the ecological optimists, the government-aligned supporters, the erosion control beneficiaries, and the hesitant implementers. In summary, there was unanimous agreement among all types regarding the negative impact of AECMs on land value and farm production. At the same time, a collective consensus emerged regarding the measures’ positive influence on biodiversity, the measures being more attractive for farmers with a proactive stance towards environmental objectives, and the provision of and need for sufficient compensation. The ecological optimists (Factor 1) believe in the positive environmental impact but harbor pragmatic reservations. The government-aligned supporters (Factor 2) value government support and professional guidance. The erosion control beneficiaries (Factor 3) prioritize AECMs for soil erosion prevention, influenced by their regional context. The hesitant implementers (Factor 4) acknowledge practical benefits but have reservations about sanction risks and government involvement.
Results of the DCE suggest that, overall, farmers are reluctant to take up voluntary measures. However, they are more likely to choose Eco-schemes over AECMs, especially when result-based. Farmers exhibit a strong negative preference towards restrictions for both fertilizers and herbicides. Flexibility attributes related to contract termination and control do not exert a significant influence for action-based contracts. Yet, for result-based AECMs, farmers show a strong preference for flexibility in control.

In conclusion, the identified factors in the Q study offer valuable insights into the diversity among farmers and can be harnessed in several ways to inform policy, interventions, and research. As AECMs are voluntary measures, understanding farmers' perceptions by applying ex-post policy evaluation is vital to improving the measures' design and implementation to increase policy adoption.
Overall, the DCE results contribute to the ongoing discourse on agricultural policy reforms, offering empirical insights into farmers' decision-making and preferences. The identified patterns and factors influencing the adoption of voluntary measures can inform future policy adjustments, ensuring the effectiveness and acceptance of sustainable agricultural practices in Flanders.