Shifting from a top-down research approach to ecosystem wide social learning and governance in managing nitrate levels
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Agronomist researchers in Italy with a traditional approach to research wanted to raise awareness of nitrate levels in eco-systems. A “nitrate emergency” was declared in the 1990’s where levels of nitrates in drinking water were above safe levels. The response was compulsory reduction of the use of fertilisers and other chemicals at individual farm plot level, resulting in reduced yields for farmers. Evidence from agronomists demonstrated that this approach was not effective as the problem was more complex than individual farm level practices – and included production processes across the water basin used so as to meet end-user expectations on type and appearance of produce. The result was a year-long process with iterative phases of learning that brought together different farm groups, government, and end-consumers. The nitrate issue was reframed through social learning processes spanning numerous iterations from a “problem” in terms of how much nitrate used on crops, to part of a wider systemic issue involving collective agreement on crop types, planting approaches, and in managing end-user expectations. Subsequently social learning has become more integrated with the planning and governance process, and the impact has been policy and practice change. Key factors that fostered social learning included co-design of research rather than repackaging as a communications exercise. This happened over time by building physical and social spaces that fostered learning. The facilitator built trust and acted as a common party between different groups. One big challenge that has undermined the process to some extent is the need for local governance bodies to comply with European requirements on farming which do not allow for some of the solutions the stakeholders have collectively developed. These EU requirements come with their own pressures to spend and report and are undermining stakeholder confidence in the ability of a more horizontal governance process working.