University of Southern Denmark
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), CH
Aberystwyth University, UK
University of Hohenheim, DE
Version 6, April 2008
Organic action plans build on the idea that it is possible to influence the development of organic food and farming by political means. This is in line with the belief that the general development of food and farming is influenced by agriculture policy in most Western countries and, in particular, by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the EU.
The rational ideal of policy-making is that it is based on definition of a clear problem and on full information of the problem area, the solutions available and their impact. As a consequence, policy decisions are expected to be clear and unambiguous, and – through conscientious implementation – should be able to solve the initial problem. However, these preconditions are seldom met in the reality of political decision-making. One reason is that political decisions concern the future, which is characterised fundamentally by uncertainty and lack of information. Another reason is that the basis for politics is to disagree on problem definitions and solutions. Hence, political reality cannot be expected to fit rational ideals and it becomes an open question as to whether or not policy decisions have the expected impact on the problem. It is to answer this kind of question that evaluation has been developed.
The starting point for evaluation is that any political decision aims at influencing social development in a certain direction on the basis of a more or less formalised analysis of the social reality, its processes and the problems they involve. Rather than building on full information, policy decisions thus build on decision-makers’ perceptions of the information available regarding the problem situation and the mechanisms available to influence it. Hence, it is important to any evaluation of policy programmes to know the motivations behind the policy design and/or to be able to reconstruct the mechanisms by which any of the policy instruments chosen are expected to contribute to solving the problem in question. The motivations and reconstructed mechanisms may be seen as ad hoc theories on the working of the programme – or pragmatic programme theories.
Programme theories are therefore an important starting point for:
for evaluating the logic of programmes (Section B2);
and for evaluative judgements concerning the overall impacts of the programme (Section D1).
Regarding organic action plans, problem definitions might be even more ambiguous than other agriculture policy decisions because the definition of organic food and farming incorporates additional groups of stakeholders competing with the rest of the food and farming sector for political attention. In addition, only limited information is available on organic food and farming and this strongly impedes the choice of effective policy solutions. Finally, the social processes to be influenced regarding organic food and farming might be more diverse and different from those characterising food and farming in general, because the organic sector involves groups of consumers who are willing to pay price premiums and groups of farmers, processors and distributors willing to produce and trade highly-specified produce. Organic action plans and the programme theories that they build on must cope with these issues.
Programme theory – that is, the motivations behind, and reconstructed mechanisms of, policy instruments included in organic action plans – may be translated into hypotheses of the regularities in social processes. This may be done by asking questions such as: “what are the mechanisms for change triggered by a programme and how do they counteract the existing processes” (Pawson and Tilley, 1997: 75). An example of a simple programme theory is that an increase in subsidies paid to organic farmers will increase farmers’ uptake of organic production.
Programme theory may take different forms, such as causality, correlation or probability – each of which may be subject to empirical tests. Programme theories may relate to:
the social processes to be influenced: e.g. the processes by which organic food and farming is expected to be able to grow within the food and farming sector as a whole;
the impact of distinct policy instruments on certain outcomes: e.g. that a certain level of subsidies will increase organic farming proportionately; and
what is considered an improvement: e.g. focusing support paid to farmers on reduction of environmental degradation in Environmentally Sensitive Areas rather than optimising organic food supplies.
The idea of an action plan is that it includes several different instruments aimed at solving a general problem in various ways. Each instrument is to contribute to the common aim in a specific way. Some policy instruments may reinforce each other while others may counteract each other – at least in certain aspects. Hence, the multitude of goals and instruments in an action plan make it ambiguous regarding objectives and also in terms of programme theory. This may be one important finding of an evaluation.
Similar programme theories may work differently in various social contexts. This is very clear from a comparison of EU member states where a joint regulation is adopted in very diverging social contexts with different results. What might work in one context (such as new member states) might not work in another context (such as old member states). It is important therefore to turn attention towards the social and institutional preconditions for programme theory to operate. These conditions may include the peculiarities of the organisation of the food market, farmers and food processing firms, the priority of agriculture policy with regard to related policy areas such as policies on food, environment, health and industrial development, the importance of consumer views and others.
Organic action plans – like other policy programmes – work on the basis of interaction between different actors/stakeholders, including political actors, public administration and target groups such as individual citizens, farmers, consumers or business firms, with NGOs serving as mediators between private individuals and the political sphere (see also Sections A4 and B1). Each type of stakeholder may have distinct demands on an action plan and preferences regarding the choice of policy instruments that are associated with their particular perceptions of the social problems involved in the policy area. Part of the ambiguity of action plans stems from the competition between stakeholders for political influence. It is therefore an important aspect of working with programme theory to detect the demands, preferences and perceptions of stakeholders and how they are combined in the policy process.
Success or failure of an action plan can, in principle, be explained in three different ways:
programme theory is correct/incorrect
This indicates that programme theory has a major impact on the success or failure of an organic action plan, but that it is not the only explanation. Implementation involves many problems to be analysed separately (Section B1) and faulty evaluation – where a successful action plan is considered a failure or a failed action plan is considered a success – is a problem to be avoided, by formulating the most relevant programme theories and designing the best ways of testing them.
In addition, it is easier to fail than to succeed, because failure of an action plan may be caused by problems in just one of the three areas (programme theory, implementation or evaluation), while success presupposes some positive contribution from all three aspects.
In a programme theory context, it is not only important to understand the way in which policy interventions influence the development of the target sector. It is also necessary to understand how the sector might have developed in the absence of the particular (or any) policy intervention. Such situations are referred to as counter-factual because they do not exist in reality. A counter-factual situation is therefore one which might have existed if the action plan or other organic policy had not been implemented, for example if the organic sector development had been entirely reliant on market growth.
The comparison of organic farming development in the United States and in Europe might be relevant in this context; the US development has been strongly market driven with limited policy intervention (at least in terms of direct support payments), while EU development has relied heavily on financial support. Dimitri and Oberholtzer (2005) provide an interesting comparison of the two situations, although this is not a formal comparative policy analysis.
Consideration of the counter-factual is an important part of the evaluation process, as it provides a basis for estimating the 'added value' that has been delivered by a programme. For example, if the area of organically-managed land has increased, would this have happened anyway as a continuation of previous trends, or has there been a measurable increase in growth rates that can be attributed directly to the policy intervention? If added value can clearly be demonstrated, this means that resources have not been used wastefully only to support what would have happened in any case.
A simple neo-classical approach to understanding the development of the organic sector would suggest that, if prices were high and organic farming were profitable compared with non-organic, farmers would convert and the sector would grow until some form of equilibrium were obtained. The fact that growth in the organic sector does not always happen when prices are high and organic farming is relatively profitable indicates that there are other factors involved.
In part, this can be attributed to the normal factors affecting agricultural production and food marketing: there is market failure because of the structure of the food system, because of the existence of public goods and externalities that are not covered by the market, and because of imperfect information. As argued by Dabbert et al. (2004) and others, these market failures represent the principal reason for policy intervention in the organic sector and for the development of organic action plans (see also the ORGAP Manual). However, the organic sector also has a number of specific characteristics that affect (both positively and negatively) the ability of the market to be the main driver for development and which influence the effectiveness of policy instruments:
Organic farming aims to deliver a range of outputs, some of which have no market, or are benefits to society as a whole, and are therefore not reflected in the prices paid by individual consumers. These issues are similar to those addressed in the concept of multi-functional agriculture (MEA-Scope; OECD, 2001)
This multi-functional nature is reflected in the duality of organic farming from a policy perspective, delivering public goods supported by agri-environmental and similar policy instruments or supplying consumer demands (which may not coincide with the public goods) via the market mechanism. This duality can present challenges in determining the best policy mix, as well as inter-departmental confusion within government about where organic farming fits best and who is responsible for organic policy development.
The organic farming concept is complex which affects the ease with which it can be adopted (Padel, 2001). This will affect the rate at which it is adopted, the type of farmers (pioneers, mainstream early and late adopters) that will be willing to adopt at any particular stage in organic sector development and the values and goals of those farmers (Alrøe and Noe, 2008; Padel, 2008; see also Section A4-3).
Organic farming developed in opposition to mainstream agricultural technology, institutional and policy developments, which still leads to conflicts between opposing stakeholders (Michelsen, 2008b; see also Section A4-3). It can also result in negative social pressures within farming communities towards those who are seen to be challenging the status quo (Padel, 2001).
As a result, ownership of the organic farming idea or concept lies outside traditional institutions (government, universities, colleges etc.), potentially affecting their willingness to engage with the subject. For example, unlike other agri-environmental policy instruments, organic farming standards have not been designed by the administrators responsible for developing the other instruments and may therefore be poorly understood or undervalued. This may also be affected by the duality issue referred to above. At the same time, the increasing engagement of policy-makers and mainstream institutions with organic farming regulation and policy support can lead to fears of institutionalisation or 'conventionalisation' of the organic sector (Darnhofer, 2006; Alrøe and Noe, 2008), resulting in a desire among some stakeholders to maintain their autonomy and to reject policy support.
Organic management requires external inputs to be replaced by information and management skills, and is therefore knowledge intensive, making research, education and extension particularly important. Linked to this, organic farming functions best as a whole farm system approach. This makes small-scale trials by farmers difficult to use as a way of learning about organic farming and building farmer confidence (Padel, 2001).
Globally and in the EU, organic food and farming is a highly regulated farming and food production system, covering almost the whole process from farm to fork, with clear requirements for identification and separation from non-organic food and farming. Other specialised agricultural systems/designations typically have more limited scope in terms of legislative basis, geographical dissemination, range of products, or focus on either farming, processing or distribution.
The organic market is at a relatively early stage of development so that changes can be relatively large compared with the existing base, which can result in significant swings between over- and under-supply, often on a regional or sub-sector (arable, dairy etc.) basis. This can be exacerbated by the time lag represented by the conversion period, which may lead to a 'pig-cycle' effect, with farmers discouraged from converting when prices are low, instead waiting until prices are high again before deciding to convert, but then finding that they achieve organic status 2-3 years later just in time for the next period of lower prices, especially if large numbers converted simultaneously.
Research on organic farming policies since the late 1990s (Lampkin et al., 1999; Dabbert et al., 2004; Häring et al., 2004; Stolze et al., 2007; Michelsen, 2008a and b, see also Section A2-4) has shown that the combination of these factors makes it very difficult to establish clear cause and effect relations between specific policy instruments and the development of the organic sector.
For example, there is evidence that financial support for conversion will stimulate adoption, but only if producers feel that there is a need to change (due to financial or other problems in the conventional sector) and they are confident that converting to organic production is the right step to take. If confidence is low, there may be very limited uptake of support payments even though they are financially attractive. This can occur if the market signals are negative (if organic prices are low or significant amounts of product are not saleable on the organic market), if there is inadequate information to make sound decisions, or if there are substantial uncertainties about future directions in mainstream agricultural (e.g. the implementation of the Single Farm Payment following the 2003 CAP reform agreement). However, if the other circumstances are positive, the same payment levels can result in very rapid uptake, particularly if steps are also taken to reduce administrative barriers to scheme participation.
The level of financial support needed may also not be clear. In principle, most financial support schemes for organic farming are subject to the rules of the relevant rural development regulations (1257/1999 and 1698/2005). These specify that payments should be based on income foregone and costs incurred, with possibly a small (<20%) incentive payment. In practice, levels of payment often appear to be determined by national willingness to spend which may, in turn, be defined by EU co-financing limits. Theoretically, payments should be differentiated by farm type and intensity, the challenge being to encourage the more intensive producers to convert, while not over-compensating the more extensive producers. However, as the more intensive producers are likely to be having a greater negative environmental impact, this can also be seen as rewarding the bad and discouraging the good. Examples of over-compensation can be seen in the large-scale conversion of hill moorland in Scotland and lucerne (alfalfa) production in Italy in the 1990s, although this was at a time when the EU organic regulations did not simultaneously require organic management of livestock. In practice, lower levels of payment may be sufficient if their main role is as a confidence-building measure allowing the producer to feel that there is some sharing of risk relating to conversion.
There is also scope to debate the relationship between support payments and market prices. It is often argued that support payments are undesirable as they can lead to over-supply and reductions in prices for existing organic producers; both groups may then abandon organic production because it is no longer financially viable. However, if strong positive organic market signals coincide with problems in the conventional sector and the introduction or reform of organic support levels (as for the dairy sector in the UK in 1999), it can be difficult to isolate which factor had the most influence on farmer interest in conversion. There is certainly an arguable case that the high levels of dairy farm conversion in the UK in 1999-2000, which led to a surge in organic milk availability and serious over-supply problems and price reductions in 2002-2003, was a consequence primarily of the market signals at the time, and not (or at least not only) as a consequence of the conversion payments.
While in most EU member states, organic certification is a requirement for participation in organic support schemes, some countries also make the marketing of products as organic a requirement, which has the potential to exacerbate the problems in the market place that may be caused by conversion support. At the same time, using the market to limit the growth of the organic sector means that the environmental and other public goods that might be derived from an increased area of land under organic management will be lost. The Swedish approach of not requiring participants in the agri-environmental organic farming scheme to be certified meant that organic land management could be encouraged, while allowing farmers to enter the organic market and become certified when market conditions were appropriate.
The balancing of the public good and market perspectives of organic farming with a balanced mix of supply-push and demand-pull measures is one of the primary reasons for interest in organic action plans but it may be that, in some situations, a clearer differentiation of different policy instruments could avoid confusion over both goals and outcomes, with the markets being used to reward organic farmers' entrepreneurial activities, and agri-environmental support being used to support organic land management without necessarily expecting producers to market their products as organic.
It is also clear that policy initiatives for organic farming do not by themselves lead to a policy impact. A combination of factors, both internal and external, will influence actors' willingness to take up the initiatives offered. Perhaps uniquely in a rural development policy context, evaluations of organic farming policies need to consider the interactions between agri-environmental and socio-economic programmes, and between the organic and non-organic sectors, in a way which is only of limited relevance for many other policy measures.
Programme theory provides a basis for better understanding these issues, but many of the interactions are complex and some factors are still not well understood. The complexity of the issues may make defining the programme theory challenging, but this is not an argument for ignoring it, rather it makes it even more important to better understand what could happen before policies are implemented. Significant progress has been made in understanding the factors influencing the development of the organic sector, as the studies mentioned above indicate. Research currently in progress will contribute further to this understanding in the coming years and should help make organic farming policies more effective.
Alrøe, H. F. and E. Noe (2008) What makes organic agriculture move - protest, meaning or market? A poly-ocular approach to the dynamics and governance of organic agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology. 7(1).
Dabbert, S., A. M. Häring and R. Zanoli (2004) Organic Farming: Policies and Prospects. Zed Books, London.
Darnhofer, I. (2006) Organic farming between professionalisation and conventionalisation: The need for a more discerning view of farmer practices. Paper presented at Joint Organic Congress, Odense, Denmark, May 30-31, 2006.
Dimitri, C. and L. Oberholtzer (2005) Market-Led Versus Government-Facilitated Growth: Development of the US and EU Organic Agricultural Sectors. Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington DC.
Häring, A. M., S. Dabbert, J. Aurbacher, B. Bichler, C. Eichert, D. Gambelli, N. Lampkin, F. Offermann, S. Olmos, J. Tuson and R. Zanoli (2004) Organic Farming and Measures of European Agricultural Policy. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy, Vol. 11, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart.
Lampkin, N., C. Foster, S. Padel and P. Midmore (1999) The Policy and Regulatory Environment for Organic Farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy, Vol. 1, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart.
Michelsen, J. (2008a) A Europeanization deficit? The impact of EU organic agriculture regulations on new member states. Journal of European Public Policy, 1/2008.
Michelsen, J. (2008b) The Europeanization of organic agriculture and conflicts over agricultural policy. Food Policy in press.
OECD (2001) Multifunctionality: towards an analytical framework. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris.
Padel, S. (2001) Conversion to organic farming: a typical example of the diffusion of an innovation? Sociologia Ruralis 40(1): 40-61.
Padel, S. (2008) Values of organic producers converting at different times: results of a focus group study in five European countries. International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 7(1): 63-77.
Pawson, R. and N. Tilley (1997) Realistic Evaluation. Sage, London.
Stolze, M., S. Dabbert, R. Zanoli, A. M. Häring and N. Lampkin (2007) Scenarios and dimensions of future European organic farming policies. EU-CEE-OFP project deliverable. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Frick, CH.
No annexes are included in this section.