Exploring Stakeholder Consensus for Multiple Outcomes in Agriculture: An Iowa Case Study
Extensive row-crop agricultural production systems dominant in the United States Corn Belt are designed to produce high yields of a small number of commodities at low production costs. While remarkably valuable, this model of agriculture is directly and indirectly associated with significant externalized public costs and questions about its long-term viability. Agro-environmental conservation policy in the United States has failed to deliver desired environmental outcomes at broad scales, in part, because policy is supply-oriented with scaled financial and technical incentives aimed at the interests of individual farm managers. Understanding broader stakeholder demand relative to agro-ecosystem outcomes is fundamental to modifying policy toward outcomes. Failed collective policy and management, often indicates failed consensus among stakeholders whose responsibilities are to provide guidance for achieving outcomes. We used a Delphi approach with representatives from Iowa-based agricultural and/or environmental policy, outreach, and industry organizations to explore whether or not consensus may exist regarding desired agricultural outcomes and if so, modes of provision. Through three iterative surveys, we found consensus regarding the array of ecosystem outcomes believed possible within the Iowa agricultural economy. However, when agricultural interests were sorted, a divide emerged between stakeholders who emphasize production agriculture and those who favor a more multi-outcome oriented agriculture that emphasizes multiple ecosystem services. Nevertheless, study participants identified several key ecosystem outcomes, and methods for providing them that are strongly compatible with and support private commodity driven land use while mitigating costly public externalities. A broad and simple six-point framework emerged from our data to contextualize questions and discussions of agricultural land-use management among stakeholders. This framework includes people, their expectations and values, land, management, and ecosystem processes in addition to ecosystem services. Broadening and bounding discourse in these ways may facilitate a shared appreciation of human-nature interconnections and more progressive policy reform that facilitates understanding of land-use decision making within agricultural contexts in ways that benefit all stakeholders.