While policies supporting the ecological intensification of agriculture are important, they are by no means enough to create a transition in agriculture. The agricultural sector is conservative and for good reason. Their income and livelihoods depend on what they do on their farms and fields. Experimenting with novel unproven practices can be costly.
In my book, the best approach to make agriculture more sustainable, biodiverse and resilient to future change is to hand farmers the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. Quite often, individual farmers are interested in applying novel ecological practices such as enhancing wild pollinators on their farms. But they simply don’t know how to do it. They may also worry that measures have adverse side-effects, such as added flowers luring away pollinators from their crops rather than enhancing them. Combined demonstration and research projects can show farmers how certain practices are done and may help take away the worries they have.
Such projects should be accompanied by research examining the agronomic, economic and biodiversity effects of these measures. This has the added benefit that it confronts scientists with the practical implications of their theories and recommendations. When the evidence shows that farmers may indeed benefit from managing their farms in a way that enhances key ecological processes they will be more inclined to adopt these novel management practices. Subsidies or tax benefits may help but what is probably more important is that farmers can see what it looks like and hear enthusiastic stories from their peers and neighbours.
Often you need to start with a couple of forerunners; open-minded farmers who are always looking for ways or opportunities to do things better or just different. In the Netherlands we are now doing a demonstration/research project with blueberry farmers to examine whether increasing floral resources on their farms can enhance productivity of their crops and perhaps also help them control spotted wing drosphila (Drosophila suzukii), a major novel pest. Apart for the research and the seeds, which are being contributed by us scientists, the farmers pay for all expenses of these measures (establishment, regular management, opportunity costs). Not a trivial thing. If results look promising, I think other farmers will rapidly take over these practices. Not in small part because the initiative for the study came from within the sector.