Numerous barriers restrain adoption of sustainable practices. The challenges of organic farming adoption, while not unique, are emblematic of the difficulties across sustainable schools of thoughts, so the discussion here focuses on organic production.
Organic food and farming is one of the few growth areas in the food system. In North America, consumer demand generally outstrips supply and many distributers, manufacturers and retailers are unable to source sufficient supply to meet customer requests. Yet, even in the presence of such demand and significant price premiums, conventional farmers are reluctant to convert to organic production. This has led many analysts to ask why adoption is so sluggish and how to speed it up.
Farmers express many reasons for adopting organic farming (Egri, 1999; Cranfield et al., 2010), but the adoption question goes beyond personal characteristics and motivations (Padel, 2001). Earlier studies (summarized by Parra-Lopez et al., 2007) attempted to identify the characteristics of organic adopters, implicitly or explicitly employing the Innovation-Diffusion model (see discussion of its limitations below). Other studies have identified a mix of farmer motivations and structural elements (sometimes referred to as exogenous factors) associated with transition, summarized by Padel (2008), Sautereau (2009) and Stephenson et al. (2021) as including: personal values and convictions about the environment, social equity and health, conversion of a neighbour, pressure from family members, health problems of family members and animals, avoiding chemicals because of an accident, anticipating consumer demand, economic opportunities, overcoming regulatory constraints, and university training. It would appear that there are also major transition impediments. Symptomatic of these structural impediments, reviews undertaken on farmer behaviour towards conservation practice adoption have frequently highlighted the gap between positive attitude toward a conservation practice and more limited actual conversions (Reimer et al., 2012), highlighting the need to go beyond individual behaviour, attitudes and characteristics if accelerated adoption trajectories are an objective.
The “resistant non-adopter” identified by Morris and Potter (1995) as the least likely to adopt in their 4-category scheme, will ultimately adopt in the right policy and programme environment. In other words, the normal distribution adoption curve as proposed by Rogers (1995) may be altered by a strongly supportive environment. Equally important, can the policy/programme/network environment significantly accelerate the speed of adoption? We have limited understanding of this question because of the limited number of studies undertaken, their mixed results, and the challenges of identifying policy potency, especially when a diverse array of direct and indirect instruments are employed (Daugbjerg et al. 2011). It is also challenging, given that many conventional growers are resistant to organic adoption for values/ideological reasons (for example 60% of conventional farmers in Darnhofer et al. ) that may not be altered by the external environment.
The challenges of adoption theory
Much of the early literature on predicting adoption of conservation approaches focused on three models: farmer demographics, farm structure, and the diffusion of information process (McCann et al., 1997). Farm structural dimensions and profit maximization frameworks, particularly, have received much attention. As well, traditional diffusion frameworks suggested that influencing attitudes will lead to changes in behaviour and that communicating properly will lead to a rational adoption.
The classic innovation-diffusion models of extension, used to communicate adoption messages for many of these agri-environmental programme designs, have been useful to understand adoption of practices or technologies with a clear commercial benefit (Vanclay and Lawrence, 1994). Unfortunately, they have not worked well for explaining adoption of conservation practices and systems, especially for “preventive” practices and systems for which adoption rates are historically low (Padel, 2001; Deffuant et al., 2002). As well, voluntary adoption is typically low for practices or systems with many off-site benefits that equal or outweigh on-site benefits, unless other incentives are available or farmers already display strong stewardship attitudes (Reimer et al., 2012).
This slow uptake has caused some rethinking amongst adoption theorists interested in sustainability, dating back some 20 years (Buttel et al., 1990; Vanclay and Lawrence, 1994). In a review of studies examining factors influencing farmer adoption of conservation practices (including organic farming), Knowler and Bradshaw (2007) found no consistently compelling relationships but did conclude that social capital could be a significant, and insufficiently examined, variable. Certainly, the role of social networks has received considerable attention recently (Jussaume and Glenna, 2009; Morgan, 2011). Building on other models, within this framework, adoption of new systems is likely to be a product of the relationships and interactions between different actors, human and non-human, institutional, group and individual (Coughenor, 2003).
In this view, innovations of a systemic nature come from both technical knowledge, and the construction of new kinds of networks to develop, guide and support them. The key variables in such an approach are the farm agroecological and socioeconomic setting, the managerial and technical abilities of the farmer, the support network and the policy environment. This newer approach lends itself well to packages of technologies and systems rather than single technologies.
But our understanding of the interplay between many of these variables, and how they influence adoption remains limited, with only a few studies exploring them extensively. According to Knowler and Bradshaw (2007), “consideration of the many factors within an agricultural system that are exogenous to a farm and its operator is arguably still in its infancy in the adoption literature. This is less true with respect to the role of information in the adoption process, but is certainly true with respect to the role of policy and, more significantly, social capital.”
Barriers to adoption
There are usually differences in environmental attitudes between organic adopters and non-adopters, a situation that is not as consistently reported for adoption of other environmental systems (Just and Heinz, 2000; Welsh and Rivers, 2011; Reimer, 2012). But other factors are significantly in play. Attitudes, although a driving force for many organic pioneers, are not necessarily as relevant for later adopters. To understand organic adoption at the farm level, we reviewed literature on barriers to adoption of environmental practices and systems, several dozen reports in the peer-reviewed literature over the past 25 years. We have identified 10 critical and interacting barriers that consistently appear (adapted from MacRae et al., 2009) and most are applicable across a range of sustainable approaches (see also Soil Conservation Council of Canada and the Compost Council of Canada, 2022).
Anxiety about finances (investments, markets and revenue stream)
Financial anxieties occur when a major change is being considered. Most studies show that organic farming is more profitable than conventional farming (MacRae et al., 2007; MacRae et al., 2014), but this information is not, of itself, sufficient to stimulate many growers to convert. Even dramatically higher organic commodity prices will not necessarily attract conventional farmers because a mix of other barriers (presented below) is so significant that price and income alone are insufficient incentives. The sunk costs of conversion, and uncertainty in the policy environment may explain reluctance to convert in the face of high organic price premiums (Kuminoff and Wossink, 2010). In Rogers’ terms, the trialability of organic farming is quite low (Parras-Lozez et al., 2007). The absence of proximate processing and marketing infrastructure aggravates these financial worries (Constance and Choi, 2010).
Labour requirements per unit area of production are typically higher on organic farms, though the nature of the work often is more varied than that found on conventional farms (Jansen, 2000). However, given current farm labour shortages in Canada, and the more specialized knowledge required, organic farmers may be even more disadvantaged.
Difficulty acquiring information
Information becomes especially important as the degree of inherent complication in the conservation technology increases (Nowak, 1987), and organic farming is complicated. Although information on organic and sustainable farming has increased dramatically the last 20 years, farmers cannot consistently rely on the dominant institutions of agricultural development to provide pertinent information. Although there is evidence that with greater farmer involvement in selecting research priorities comes increased adoption rates of the practices (Drost et al., 1996), such opportunities remain relatively rare. Information is often found more useful when the receiver has a relationship with the information provider (King and Rollins, 1995; Kroma, 2006).
Difficulty thinking through the sequence of changes, in part because of limited access to trusted advisors
Only a few countries have transition advisory services that help farmers with the transition process. Evaluations in Europe (Lampkin, 1996; Morris and Winter, 1999), the USA (GAO, 2001; Lynch et al., 2001; CAST, 2003; Constance and Choi, 2010) and Canada (MacCallum, 2003) identify limited advisory supports (whether publicly funded or private crop consultants) as key obstacles to adoption of agri-environmental programming.
Few nearby farms modelling the change
There is evidence (see discussion below) that farmers are more likely to convert upon seeing neighbours succeed (Centre for Rural Economics Research, 2002; Parras-Lopez et al., 2007).
Challenges obtaining suitable equipment or inputs
Organic farmers are restricted in the types of inputs they can use and have also found historically that some conventional farm equipment is not well adapted to their conditions (MacRae et al., 1990). As such, the transition frequently involves getting rid of conventional equipment and capital losses may thus be sustained.
Lack of confidence in new approaches and in abilities to manage the transition
Don't like the "look" of the changes and don't believe they reflect good management
Conventional farmers, even those participating in non-organic agri-environmental schemes, often still favour “tidy landscapes” over conservation and biodiversity. The need to model good farmer behaviour, or cultural capital, may trump financial payments that support transition to environmental practices. One criticism of European agri-environmental schemes is the failure to recognize this in programme designs (Burton et al., 2008). Organic farms definitely have a different look to them than conventional ones, associated, for example, with such features as more diverse landscapes and less “clean” fields. These realities are emblematic of what Burton et al. (2008) call “messy” symbols.
Fear changes will be stressful and inconsistent with family traditions
Many farms are already under financial or health – related stress when transition is being considered. The possibility of even greater stressors while converting is frequently a significant obstacle.
Anxiety about changes to one's status in the community and with supporting institutions, e.g., banks
Farmers are influenced by their social environment and acceptance by peers (for some theoretical considerations on this, see Laforge and Levkoe, 2018). Those interested in organic farming have historically reported that pressure from community members to stay with conventional production has had a dampening effect on their transition trajectory (Constance and Choi, 2010). A French study found that 21% of producers with a transition plan claimed that poor acceptance by neighbours was a brake on their transition. The changes have to be acceptable within the farming sub-culture (Vanclay and Lawrence, 2009). Support of regional bodies is important, especially those with environmental purposes, the idea that this is part of larger effort to protect the environment is important (Centre for Rural Economics Research,, 2002; Santereau, 2009). Alternately, organic conversions do have an influence on conventional neighbours, with heightened likelihood of conversion reported in England with higher concentrations of organic adopters (Centre for Rural Economics Research, 2002).
Not all these barriers are in play for every farmer, but many are. Most of these barriers are sensible, given the current lack of support for adoption. In this sense, non-adoption is not so much a “farmer failure” as it is a “system failure” (Nowak et al., 1996). These last-listed barriers are often viewed as “soft” obstacles, yet they are often more significant determinants of adoption than financial ones.
Additional barriers to urban farming (adapted from the minutes of the meeting of 17 November 2008, of Toronto Urban Growers and reported in MacRae et al., 2012)
- Soil Compost, Safety, Quality
Lack of perceived space
Assessing soil safety
Site remediation costs
Community composting limitations
Challenge: Odors from compost, manure
- Land Access
Land-use policies: Selling from city land; public health definition of what constitutes a farm; agricultural zoning
Short- and long-term land access
Access to underused land
- Land Zoning
Regulatory and zoning issues
Bylaws, lease agreements, jurisdictions
- Funding, Resources, Infrastructure
No resources for new immigrants
Farm equipment can’t be driven on city roads
- Accessing capital and operating dollars
Living wage for farmers
Lack of infrastructure: soil, water, storage, greenhouse
- Diversity and Equality (overlap all issues)
Not equitable if local food is not affordable to everyone
No place for small farmers (i.e., 1-acre sites)
Transition from successful backyard gardening to larger-scale production
- Marketing, Infrastructure
Infrastructure: electricity, storage (cold, dry)
Problem of food as a commodity; practical training and solutions to making farming lucrative or viable
Accessing market research
Farmer training: business planning, urban farm schools (longer term), support
Dealing with bureaucracy
- Networks and Communication
Building up capacity within urban agriculture
Strengthening capacity to react to new approaches and get involved in new projects
Ability to know what is going on in urban agriculture in Toronto
Better linkages with other urban farming folks in other cities
Mollusk and seaweed production are inherently low input, but most other forms of aquaculture exhibit a range of practices, from high input industrial systems that generate comparable problems to industrial agriculture, to ecological low input systems (Klinger and Naylor, 2012). Extensive low input systems clearly have lower start up challenges than intensive systems that face numerous capitalization, licensing, regulatory and community challenges. How to convert these intensive systems to ecological ones, and the barriers faced by producers, is the focus of this section.
Less has been written in aquaculture about barriers from the producer perspective, in part because the transition to sustainable practices (outside of operations that were always sustainable) is younger than in agriculture. Many of the barriers experienced by farmers are also present for aquaculture producers but because of the different patterns of ownership, they express differently. Large aquaculture operations are run typically by corporations and the production unit is overseen by managers, a situation that is less common on a percentage of producers basis in agriculture. These larger firms typically have easier access to capital, but the scale of their operation pushes them towards production practices that are inherently unsustainable, particularly the production of carnivorous fish in coastal areas, that require significant amounts of wild fish meal, and at densities that create disease pressures, increase risks of escapes and disrupt local aquatic ecologies. Once invested in these expensive and intensive production models, transition to low input and fish density approaches, with fish species lower on the trophic scale capable of eating primarily an herbivorous diet, is challenging. At this point, many firms are hoping that technological solutions can be found that don't require a restructuring of the entire operation. Although some technologies in development can reduce negative environmental impacts, it is the absence of an integrated ecological approach to production that is the core problem. For many firms, to think that way, is to completely redesign their operation. There are few current examples of large scale ecological operations, in part because the knowledge base is still limited. It may also be that achieving current scales in an ecological operation is impossible. The research and regulatory environment in Canada is unlikely to push operations in strongly sustainable directions.
Other actors in the supply chain
Other actors in food supply chains have tended to focus on their own operations when trumpeting commitments to sustainability. While this is important, there is some evidence that most environmental problems lie with food supply chains, not with the operations of facilities. For example, by some measures 90% of food system carbon emissions are related to supply chains and their logistics but only 15% of firms are substantially addressing them (CDP, 2020). A deeper approach is needed.
Input providers face numerous vulnerabilities (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Food System Vulnerabilities) that in theory would trigger transition to sustainable systems, but this is only slowly happening. The biggest obstacle is to shift an enterprise from one that sells products, to one that sells primarily ecological services. In sustainable farming, farmers rely much more on the internal resources of the farm, and purchase fewer off-site inputs. They can, however, be more reliant on ecological service providers, for example, pest scouting services or nutrient efficiency consultants. Given the high costs of research and development, manufacturing, distribution and retailing, input firms are extremely reluctant to change. Most, in fact, are actively blocking the transition to sustainable food systems and energy efficiency through their direct lobbying of government units and their financial support for think tanks and faux NGOs that regularly write reports debunking organic food and agriculture and related schools of thought.
Input firms, whether farm or fisheries oriented, that do offer services bundle delivery with their agrichemical products, livestock or feed. This has come about, in part, because provincial departments of agriculture have substantially cut back their farm-level extension services. Often the input dealers are the only ones driving the back roads, and coastal areas, and retailing information in smaller towns. While some of the information is valuable, eg., pest identification and monitoring, ultimately it is designed to produce sales and in many cases the services are not available without product sales. Both the sellers and the buyers are thus locked into a system that is fundamentally anti0ecological, but hard to shift, since lack of information and trusted advisors is a key reason producers do not undertake the transition.
Given the size of many input firms and the corporate concentration of the sector (see Getting Started, Problems), most firms are completely wedded to the industrial capitalist model and fight hard to retain their market share in the face of external pressures to change.
Processors face numerous vulnerabilities (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Food System Vulnerabilities) that in theory would trigger processor transition to sustainable systems. As discussed, many processors have responded with process engineering changes, but not necessarily food supply and labour shifts.
Small sustainable startups face a different set of barriers than existing processors reluctant to adopt sustainable certification. Capitalization, cash flow, financing, licensing and product testing challenges are comparable to conventional SME startups, but sustainable operations often face additional difficulties securing supply, identifying buyers and designing appropriate marketing strategies. Sustainable processing may also require additional skill sets of employees, related to permitted practices and product menus. The information challenges related to these requirements can be significant. In some instances, the regulatory hurdles can also be more onerous.
Existing processors considering a transition to sustainable supply chains and practices face a somewhat different set of hurdles. Segregation of sustainable from conventional food (and associated cleaning regimes) if both are processed, process re-engineering, developing relationships with different suppliers, product marketing and labeling changes all confront established practices. Employees may resist the changes. Financing bodies may see the shift as risky and deny credit. Such transitions require planning and identifying appropriate sequencing is not necessarily obvious. Experienced advisors to such process changes may not be available.
Distributors and Retailers
Retailers also face significant vulnerabilities in the current environment (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Food System Vulnerabilities) and these in theory create opportunities for shifts to sustainable supply chains. However, this often means confronting existing convenient and coercive supplier relations, and reconfiguring supply chain logistics that have been designed on international movement of conventional goods. In many cases, especially for large distributors and retailers, existing logistics are so locked-in that significant change is impossible in the near term (McCallum et al., 2014). Staff awareness of wider food system problems is frequently low, so many operations do not appreciate how their operations contribute to food system dysfunction. This helps to isolate the firm from societal critiques of their performance.
Food service operations also face significant vulnerabilities in the current environment (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Food System Vulnerabilities). Many operations are also so locked into specific restaurant designs, staffing, and supply chains that their ability to transition is seriously constrained. For many chains that have central coordination, menus and prices are set centrally, food is mostly warmed up with minimal chef skills required, inventory is organized and suppliers are determined by head office. Space devoted to front of house usually compromises what can be done back of house, including waste management. Independents have more latitude but don't necessarily take advantage of it. It appears that many successful sustainable food service operations have different restaurant / cafeteria designs, employ fully trained chefs, design weekly menus based on what is available, and largely cook from scratch.