What’s more important to farmers - fairness or maximising production?


Agricultural sustainability often requires setting limits on inputs such as water, pesticides, and nutrients. In addition, many industries are beginning to develop targets around a wide range of sustainability issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and different land-use practices. From our research and work in multiple agricultural sectors, we have learnt that one of the foremost concerns farmers have when faced with new targets or limits is fairness. More specifically, farmers often see limits and targets as a burden, and they are concerned with the fairness of how these burdens are distributed.

Whether any requirement is seen as fair or not has a significant impact on motivation. For example, people are more likely to work harder when they believe their pay and work conditions are fair. If a requirement is seen as unfair, it can increase feelings of anger and reduce performance. Ensuring sustainability targets and limits align with farmer’s views of what is fair is critical to encouraging behaviour change and motivating sustainability improvements. Discovering what people think is fair is not easy. First, moral or ethical views are highly personal. Second, people often have reasons to provide biased responses when directly asked about what is fair for them. For example, a judge wouldn’t base their judgement on what the accused thinks is fair. Instead, justice needs to be impartial, i.e. ‘justice is blind’.

I conducted a fairness experiment with 89 New Zealand farmers from across the country. The farmers were horticulturalists, primarily from the wine, kiwifruit, stone fruit, and pip fruit industries. I presented the farmers with fictional farming scenarios in which they were required to allocate water and energy targets between different farms in a way they thought were fair. They were provided information for the fictional farms on the farms' financial position, their environmental constraints (e.g. rainfall), and the effort they had put into improving their sustainability in the past. More information on the method can be found here.

Overall, the farmers did not prioritise maximising production when setting sustainability targets. In most cases, the farmers preferred targets that resulted in a production decrease at both an industry and an individual level in order to spread the burdens more fairly among farmers. Some of the key insights are:

  • If a farm is struggling financially, it should receive a lower target – i.e. it needs more support.

  • If a farm has not demonstrated any effort to improve its sustainability performance, it should receive a higher target – i.e. it should be punished for its lack of effort.

  • If a farm is faced with challenging local environmental conditions, this should not influence its target allocation – i.e. the participants thought being in a demanding environment was not grounds for additional support.

If sustainability targets were set according to farmers views on fairness, there is a great potential to enhance the ability of sustainability initiatives to make a significant impacts. Agricultural sustainability initiatives in New Zealand are only just beginning to tackle sustainability targets. Fairness concerns should be central to this development. The approach used in this research also has uses well beyond setting sustainability targets; it could be used to set industry levies, make internal business decisions, boost staff performance etc. Aligning decision making to fairness perceptions should be a critical step in any decision-making process that imposes a burden on people.


Read a white paper for the research here. The research has been produced elsewhere; however, it is behind a paywall.

Dr Jay Whitehead - August 2019


Jay Whitehead