Making sustainability policies sustainable

November 30, 2012

Sweeping environmental policies come with hidden challenges - not only striving to achieve sustainability and benefit the environment - but over time ensuring the program itself can endure.

Scientists at Michigan State University and their colleagues in China are examining China's massive Grain to Green Program (GTGP) - an effort to persuade farmers to return cropland to forest through financial incentives. Their results were reported in this week's journal Ecological Indicators.

The goal - developing a unique targeted approach that applies the combination of environmental sciences and social sciences to get a full picture of how policy really is working, and how it can grow stronger. It's important not only to offer insight to China as it continues to shape it's Grain to Green Program, but also across the world as governments strive to protect their environment while enabling people to thrive.

By some measurements, the GTGP has been enormously successful as it is vast. In its 12 years it has invested more than 200 billion yuan (about $32 billion U.S.) to persuade more than 120 million farmers in 32 million households to return 8.8 million hectares of cropland to forest and grassland.

The question addressed by Andrés Viña, assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife, Jianguo "Jack" Liu, director of MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) and their collaborators is: is it the right land being enrolled in the program, and will farmers remain committed to the program, or will they eventually decide they're better off farming?

Farmers in the study area of southwestern China are famous for their persistence in turning seemingly any land -- no matter how steep or remote - into farmland. This has threatened valuable ecosystems in a land rich in biodiversity and home to endangered species, most notably the giant pandas. More cropland not only means less forests but also less bamboo - the sole item on the panda's menu. It also can mean fragmenting precious habitat.

GTGP aims to give farmers an incentive to put away their plows and hoes by providing cash, grain and tree seedlings. The program is intended to target land not best suited for farming - most notably land that is on steep hillsides and close to existing forests. As the article notes, the program's success depends not only on ecosystem services provided by the land enrolled in the program, but also on the willingness of local people to forgo their land use activities.

The researchers worked to identify land that would provide the highest environmental benefits when returned to forest, while presenting the least chance for farmers to return it back to cropland. That second piece has been particularly elusive, yet Viña said that is key for sustaining the environmental benefits obtained by the program. So the team collected data on slope, to evaluate soil erosion and landside susceptibility; the likelihood a land parcel would be farmed, and the probability a farmer would want to enroll - and stay enrolled - in the program.

"While these measures don't give a complete picture of all the environmental benefits of such a program, their combination through our targeting approach enhances the chance of obtaining higher benefits under the same budget," Viña said. "This could, therefore, improve the overall efficiency of the program."

The results indicated there is room for improvement as right now too much land enrolled in the program is located in flat areas. They also found that policymakers would do well communicating more with farmers to better understand their wants and needs.

"Some farmers have complained that the payment received does not fully compensate their forgone economic returns from cropping the land enrolled in the program. Therefore, they are more likely to return it to cropland, undermining the success of the program." Viña said.
-end-
In addition to Liu, who is the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, and Viña, "Improving the efficiency of conservation policies with the use of surrogates derived from remotely sensed and ancillary data" was written by Xiaodong Chen, assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Wei Lu, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria,Yu "Chris" Li, a research assistant, all CSIS alumni; Wu Yang, a CSIS doctoral student; and Zhiyun Ouyang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China

Michigan State University

Related Sustainability Articles from Brightsurf:

New method adds and subtracts for sustainability's true measure
Policies across the world seek clear paths to sustainability, but it takes a broad look to know their true impact.

Striving and stumbling towards sustainability amongst pandas and people
Understanding how achieving one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals spins off more SDG success -- or sabotages progress on another goal across spatial and administrative boundaries.

Is less more? How consumers view sustainability claims
Communicating a product's reduced negative attribute might have unintended consequences if consumers approach it with the wrong mindset.

Innovations for sustainability in a post-pandemic future
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the world into turmoil and disrupted the status quo, but it is also providing opportunities for innovation in the way we live and work.

Thematic package: Corona and sustainability
The COVID-19 pandemic remains an important topic throughout the world.

Digital agriculture paves the road to agricultural sustainability
In a study published in Nature Sustainability, researchers outline how to develop a more sustainable land management system through data collection and stakeholder buy-in.

Lack of transparency in urban sustainability rankings
UPV/EHU researchers have looked at the quality and good methodological practices employed and published in 21 rankings, indexes and similar tools used for classifying and monitoring urban sustainability.

New research shows sustainability can be a selling point for new ingredients
The first UK consumer study on the use of Bambara Groundnut as an ingredient in products has shown that sharing information on its sustainable features increased consumers' positive emotional connection to food.

Sustainability strategies more successful when managers believe in them
New research from Cass Business School has found that business sustainability strategies can succeed alongside mainstream competitive strategies when managers believe in them.

Sustainability claims about rubber don't stick
Companies work hard to present an environmentally responsible image. How well do these claims stack up?

Read More: Sustainability News and Sustainability Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.