Public-Private Partnerships Offer a New Model for Conservation
Public-private collaborations are one answer. They bring together multiple players across a region to finance and implement conservation efforts for the benefit of all parties.
A Greater Impact
These collaborations help take conservation from smaller, farm-sized projects to larger, regional ones. “We need to move beyond a small-project basis, because you are talking about millions of individual actors in the system whose behavior we need to both enable and incentivize in order to change,” says Josette Lewis, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Policy is an important scalable driver, as is the market.”
Currently, a major policy driver is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a new program from the last farm bill for large-scale conservation efforts. It provides matching grants for funding from other public and private nonfederal sources. “RCPP is a signal from the federal government that this is a direction for conservation in farming,” says Jonathan Coppess, director of the University of Illinois’ Gardner Agricultural Policy Program. “This is the first big federal effort with a regional focus and a focus on private partnership.”
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The idea of public-private collaborations may be poised to gain some additional momentum. In late 2017, Peterson participated in a Farm Foundation Forum, which examined how public-private collaboration might help achieve more comprehensive conservation results. One of the key goals of the forum was to promote better understanding of this kind of collaborative approach, so that it can be part of discussions surrounding the next farm bill.
Syngenta has been recently recognized for the company’s collaboration with farmers, Kellogg and The Nature Conservancy. The multiyear collaboration has been helping farmers demonstrate how conservation practices enhance natural resource management in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay region. “Society as a whole benefits from cleaner water and our ecosystems being valued, and we can help the farmer benefit financially,” Peterson says.
Finding Funding and Synergy
Funding is a crucial element, but private partners also bring other resources to the table, Coppess says. “Companies like Syngenta have contacts and capabilities that do not exist in the federal agency. They bring a level of capability that stretches conservation even further, and they help reach the farmers.”
Private industry can also wield significant cultural influence, he adds. “If you see companies like Syngenta working on this issue and putting their dollars into it, that elevates the issue.”
Ideally, a unique synergy arises when diverse participants work toward a common goal, and that can help push the envelope in terms of outcomes, says John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust. “When you have all these players, you have to be more disciplined and strive to have real results. Having that diversity of players ultimately leads to not only a more robust project, but also one where people hold each other accountable for outcomes.”
“We need to move beyond a small-project basis, because you are talking about millions of individual actors in the system whose behavior we need to both enable and incentivize in order to change.”
By definition, these public-private projects aim to create positive economic and environmental results. “That, in essence, is what good conservation practices are about,” Piotti says. “You want to simultaneously do what’s right by the land and help everyone who is part of that value chain have the economic incentive to keep doing that.” But finding those areas of mutual benefit can sometimes present a challenge.
Because farmers usually have a large role in implementation, the conservation practices proposed must be workable for the participating operators. “They often can’t try something different without putting their existing operation in jeopardy,” Piotti says. “If they change a tilling system and their productivity goes down by 50 percent, they could go out of business.” In the successful projects he’s seen, the other partners minimize the farmer’s risk, and the farmer drives a lot of the project’s programming.
Measuring results can be another challenge—can the conservation benefit be assessed, and how soon? “With changes in farm practice, such as cover cropping, you get one shot a year, and it’s very weather dependent, so assessing it isn’t the same as a lab experiment. And then measuring some of the environmental factors, like nutrient loss, is difficult because it’s water and it’s moving,” Coppess says. The long time frame of collaborations is a challenge, too, but it is also a benefit: It can take time to build trust among collaborators and see the benefits, but the results can be lasting.
As is often true, these challenges also offer opportunities and provide a chance for agriculture to take the lead on conservation, Lewis adds. “With these public-private projects, farmers can become leaders in moving their community in a new direction,” she says. “They can help find a positive way forward.”
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