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Restore and manage soils

Soil forms the foundation of agriculture, and how farmers’ growing practices impact soil health is critical to soil management for future generations. Growing pressure on land and conventional farming techniques together demand intensive use of chemical inputs which has led to widespread loss of soil fertility and soils’ ability to withstand erosion. Climate variability in addition introduces aggressive pests and new weed species into soils, raising the chances of irregular yields and consequently, higher poverty levels and food insecurity.Soil restoration via low-input cultivation, composting, cover cropping and reduced tillage practices can improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, retain greater moisture, and produce crops more resistant to disease. These impacts cumulatively contribute to climate mitigation efforts by improving crops’ quality, strengthen drought resistance, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Let us go on a 'Behavior-Centered Design' journey and discover how we can promote soil restoration and management among farmers.

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Identify the actors, behaviors, and context

Farming practices have historical, social, cultural, and environmental dimensions, which are in turn embedded in a complex macroeconomic milieu of international trade agreements, country specific land tenure arrangements, minimum support price mechanisms, subsidies, and inadequate access to credit.

The ‘Frame’ Step puts the behavior in behavior change by focusing efforts on the behaviors and audiences that will have the most meaningful impact on our goal, the adoption of soil restoration and management among smallholder farmers
There are many ways of understanding farmers’ motivations and barriers to behavior change.

What is the problem?

Soil health is declining, and climate variability is making it worse.

This entails a decline in soil fertility, reduced yields over time, and soils’ ability to withstand erosion, compromising farmers’ overall adaptive capacity to respond to climate fluctuations.

Who is contributing i.e., the actors and institutions?

Smallholder farmers, Local governments, Input providers (Agribusinesses, Extensionists)

What are the actors doing or not doing i.e., behaviors contributing to the problem?

Overuse of chemical fertilizer and plastic film mulching is common in conventional agrochemical intensive farming by smallholders strapped for resources.

What do we want actors to do i.e., the target behavior?

Manage and restore soils for attaining direct impact on soil health and long term ecosystem benefits through composting, reduced chemical inputs, and reduced tillage.

These are the six levers of behavior change. Each lever represents a category of intervention strategies based on evidence-based principles from behavioral and social science. The levers are discrete and able to be “pulled” individually, or in different combinations for different effects, to craft solutions to behavioral challenges.
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Understanding farmers’ motivations and barriers

Match the correct phrases to the question

What are farmers’ values/goals/concerns/interests?
Which emotions are related to the target behavior ‘Restore and Manage Soils’?
Who are farmers' role models? Which social groups or identities are important to them?
With whom do farmers interact for this behavior?
How is the farmer’s decision to adopt this behavior affected by cost, convenience, and/or knowledge of soil management practices?
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Many challenges intrinsic to agricultural production today are behavioral. Some are more salient in developing contexts, but taken together, they point to the heart of the matter: agricultural challenges are also behavioral challenges.

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What do we know about life on land today?

Click on any box to identify the behavioral insight behind common trends in farmer behavior.

Smallholder farmers in developing contexts are less likely to adopt technologies and non-chemical inputs they haven’t yet encountered or seen peer farmers use successfully.

This is Uncertainty Aversion

The already-precarious nature of agrarian livelihoods make farmers especially averse to more uncertainty in the form of untested (for them) innovations.

Farmers postpone investing into soil regeneration as a present-day savings measure.

This is Hyperbolic Discounting

Soil degradation is an effect of short-term thinking. The longitudinal effects of high-input agriculture on soils are understood but farmers discount the (slow) future cost of declining soil health and increased vulnerability to climate change.

The possibility of new practices or inputs failing is experienced more keenly than their potential to succeed.

This is Loss Aversion

This possibility of loss shapes farmer decision making to a greater extent than the (equal) possibility of gain and improvement in life conditions.

Farmers are reluctant to experiment with new methods, or change their existing ways of doing things, even with the provision of subsidies.

This is Status Quo Bias

Farmers prefer to stick to what they know. Keeping things the same promises stability in a world that is made deeply unstable by a changing climate, fluctuations in crop prices, and now, a global pandemic.

Farmers selectively turn to instances of failure to justify their rejection of climate smart practices such as calibration of inputs, composting, use of climate information or reduced water use.

This is Confirmation Bias

A tendency to focus on, emphasize, and recall information that confirms prior convictions, and to downplay or ignore information that challenges them.

How farmers’ peers are practising agriculture shapes the choices and preferences of the farming community writ large.

This is Conformity Bias

Predominant social norms push the adoption of practices because humans tend to take cues from the social groups to which they belong for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

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If we change...

Understanding farmers’ motivations and barriers brings us to the task of building hypotheses. Let us examine our data collected during the ‘Empathize’ step, but this time with a behavioral lens. Which elements, if changed, might take farmers closer to adopting soil management and restoration practices such as composting and reduced use of chemical inputs?

Want a refresher on the behavioral levers?
Behavioral Lever
Behavioral Insights
Material Incentives
Social Influences
Rules and Regulations
Emotional Appeals
Choice Architecture
Potential Behavioral Strategies
Behavioral Insights
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This is a good moment to identify the relationship between program activities and the final outcomes we seek.

This is where you are now, strategizing about possible interventions.

Programs Activities.

Shift in psychological or social changes result from program activities...

Psycho-Social States


...will generate behavioral outcomes

Target Behaviors will consolidate over time to create

Enviromental and Social Outcomes

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If we change [ the way compost preparation is taught and supported ], we can create [ confidence and ease ] which in turn will [ promote the adoption of soil restoration and management practices like composting from on-farm waste materials. ].

Simplifying messages and facilitating planning are key behavioral principles. Designing the decision making context through the way we prompt, structure, or frame choices has a strong influence on behavior.

Learn more about how to build a psycho-social theory of change.

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Solutions from around the world

Jintian Family Farm Exposes the Underground

Cotton is one of the world’s dirtiest and thirstiest crops and Northwest China’s Xinjiang province alone produces 10% of the world’s supply. Years of monocropping and intensive use of chemical inputs have further degraded Xinjiang’s groundwater and soil health. With the region losing 5.5 giga tons of terrestrial water storage per year, drought is a persistent concern. In collaboration with Soil & More Impacts (SMI), Rare supported a behaviorally informed transition towards organic and climate-smart agriculture practices among Jintian Farm’s cotton farmers between 2015 and 2019 as part of its larger Let’s Farm project.

Jintian Farm is a medium-sized family farm currently cultivating nearly 810 acres of cotton and rice rotated every three years. 200 farming households work and live at Jintian. The transition to organic was initially motivated by the prospect of gaining a price premium for organically certified cotton.

Organic certification standards alone do not translate to environmental or economic impact. The challenge lies in promoting the adoption of a holistic production management system that can sustain the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. Composting is the foundation of soil restoration, and Rare identified composting from on-farm waste materials as the target behavior for Jintian’s cotton farmers.

Initial skepticism over whether cotton could grow without chemicals gave way to curiosity, and with program assistance from Rare and SMI, Jintian Farm made and applied 300 tons of compost in 2018.

Rare educated farmers about the importance of soil conservation, simplified composting techniques, and inspired them to adopt different attitudes toward organic farming during key moments in the growing cycle. Using its signature social marketing campaigns informed by behavioral insights, Rare and Jintian Farm promoted composting through posters, billboards, community gatherings, and announcements.

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Jintian Farm in Xinjiang is an example of how one community chose to address the challenge of promoting the adoption of soil management and restoration practices, particularly composting. This Step in the ‘Behavior-Centered Design’ journey is about brainstorming a range of possible ideas for solutions. You are ready to move to the next step when you have a prioritized list of solutions related to the target behavior i.e., restoring and managing soils.

Next, you can develop a prototype (small-scale version) that captures your solution’s essential features without investing too much time or resources. You are ready to move to the next step when you have a prototype with the essential features of your chosen intervention.

Test your prototype and gain feedback on the solution from your target audience. It’s important to validate or invalidate your hypotheses about what motivates behavior and gain feedback to improve your solution.You might have to gain more insights and test your solution more than once before launching the solution at scale.

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Launch your solution and see how it performs in the real world at scale!

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The results are in! It is now time to measure the impact of your solution and monitor changes in the rate of behavior adoption over time.

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Behavior change is not quick. Social transformation in real time is messy. Let us take the case of Jintian Farm in Xinjiang, China. Two years into launching their solution - simplifying composting instructions and providing technical support - where are Jintian’s cotton farmers now?


Number of farmers trained in composting at Jintian Farm in Xinjiang province, China, working on 71 hectares set aside for organic production of Extra Long Staple cotton since 2018.


Tons of on-farm compost prepared in open air conditions using agriculture waste like rice straw and ginning waste, with an application rate of 11.55 tons of compost per hectare in 2019. This represented a 63.4 percentage point increase in compost production from the previous year.


Percentage point increase in the number of farmers believing in the efficacy of composting


Increase in soil organic matter after 2 years based on pre- and post-harvest soil test. Changes in carbon stocks from the application of compost is estimated to result in a sequestration of up to 2.91 CO2 eq/ha.

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There is no one solution to the challenge of promoting the adoption of soil restoration and management practices. Existing motivations and barriers in specific contexts come together to shape how soil stewardship can be encouraged among smallholder farming communities.
To go on another 'Behavior-Centered Design' journey, choose any of the following behavioral challenges.