How Food Companies Can Harness the Power of Social Networks for Scope 3 Reductions

As the spotlight on the food sector’s impact on global emissions grows, particularly as the voluntary and regulatory spaces for agriculture, forestry, and other land use drive increasing scrutiny, many major food companies have announced ambitious science-based climate targets. Food and agriculture companies face a unique challenge in meeting these targets, however, as the lion’s share of their emissions lie in their Scope 3—on the farms that supply their products and ingredients. Driving down those emissions requires companies to engage and support farmers to roll out climate solutions.

While many are rightly focused on financial incentives to encourage adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices, a newly released report sheds light on another, under-appreciated lever of change: farmers’ social networks.

New research from Colorado State University, funded by Environmental Defense Fund, explores how companies can work with farming communities via social networks to meet climate goals and drive reductions in scope 3 emissions, while building farmer resilience to climate change shocks.

Why Social Networks Matter: Top Takeaways

Social networks, our interconnected webs of interpersonal connections, play a pivotal role in shaping human behavior. To accelerate the adoption of climate-smart practices, farmers’ social networks are crucial, but under researched. Researchers surveyed 38 farmers from 10 rural Iowa counties for a snapshot into the role social networks play in farmers’ adoption of practices such as cover cropping and no till, which can ensure farm resilience and have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are the top findings:

Diverse Networks Drive Adoption:

Research indicates that farmers with more diverse social networks are more likely to adopt agricultural conservation practices. The diversity of connections, particularly when they include agricultural professionals like extension agents and agronomists, contributes to higher adoption rates. Trust in professionals within these networks fosters a conducive environment for the acceptance of new practices.

The Impact of Network Structure:

Surprisingly, farmers who are less connected to their colleagues are also more prone to adopting conservation practices. This counterintuitive finding suggests that less connectivity with fellow farmers exposes adopters to varied perspectives from alternative sources, challenging the status quo.

Diverse Operations and Innovation:

Farmers with more diverse operations, spanning multiple crops, are more likely to engage in agricultural conservation practices. This diversity exposes them to different techniques, financial opportunities, and sources of information, creating a more fertile ground for innovation and adoption.

The Role of Younger Farmers:

Younger farmers, more inclined to consult online sources such as social media and YouTube, suggest a unique avenue for disseminating innovative practices. While social media provides exposure to new sources, ensuring the reliability of online content becomes crucial.

Financial Benefits and Conservation Communities: 

Some counties in Iowa have much different rates of adoption even though they are adjacent to one another. In the high adoption counties, there seems to be a “conservation community” with mutually reinforcing factors, including conservation easements, government support, and increased farmer engagement, that fosters higher adoption rates. They also exhibit higher annual crop sales per acre, dispelling concerns about the financial impact of adopting conservation practices.

Social Recognition and Attitudes:

Social recognition for using best practices, concern about climate change, and a willingness to try new practices are closely intertwined. These perceptions and attitudes are likely conveyed and amplified through social networks, emphasizing the role of peer influence in driving behavior change.

Top Takeaway:

Social networks can either impede or promote change, emphasizing the importance of understanding the messages, sources of information, and people influencing farmers.

Top Three Insights for Action

Fostering Connectivity:

To apply these insights and promote adoption, companies should consider initiatives such as:

  • Field Days: Fund programs that connect innovative farmers with other farmers through “field days” and similar demonstrations.
  • Conservation Communities: Partner with local ag retailers and other community institutions to facilitate and strengthen local networks while demonstrating different ways of doing things, building “conservation communities” where customers can exchange novel experiential knowledge. Talking to other farmers about how they have tried different options to overcome certain obstacles in practical ways on their own farms can demonstrate valuable proofs of concept.
  • Enhanced Online Offerings: Invest in high-quality online resources and leverage central sources for farmers to share successful experiences to enhance confidence in adopting new practices.

Next Steps

For sustainability leaders seeking to support farmers in adopting climate- smart agriculture practices, engagement with farmers’ social networks must be a part of your strategy. Financial incentives are essential, but a holistic approach that also considers the transformative power of social networks will be far more successful in accelerating the uptake of new practices than simply offering funding alone. By understanding and leveraging these networks, we unlock the potential for increasing the pace and scale of change, contributing significantly to farmland resilience, global emissions reductions, and a sustainable food future.

For a copy of the report, please click here.