Scenarios for the Future of Nitrogen Management in California Agriculture

by Zixin Lu last modified Jun 10, 2016 03:48 PM
Scenarios can help stakeholders deal with controversy and complexity, and they are particularly useful in cases where there is a large amount of uncertainty, as is the case in this assessment. This chapter describes the process and results of a scenarios development workshop involving a diverse group of stakeholders who were asked to creatively think about the following question: How will we manage nitrogen in California agriculture over the next 20 years?

CNA_scenarios graphic
Four scenarios for nitrogen in CA, 2010-2030

Although the starting perspectives were quite diverse, the stakeholders collectively identified two areas of high uncertainty and great influence: future profitability of California agriculture and the future course of agricultural policy and mechanisms for implementation. This exercise led to the stakeholders developing four plausible futures of how N-relevant technologies and policies might unfold and how these would affect N management and impacts, based on different possible profitability and policy trajectories.


Stakeholder Questions

While this chapter presents possible "scenarios" of the future of N in California, it provides some insights related to the following stakeholder questions:

  • To what extent would policies designed to reflect the public health and environmental costs of nitrogen pollution affect food prices and farm revenues?
  • How can policies account for the trade-offs between costs and benefits of N use?
  • How might policy be used more effectively to both monitor and address nonpoint source agricultural pollution?

Main Messages

Participants in the scenarios workshops identified the profitability of farming and environmental regulations as two of the most uncertain forces and important drivers affecting N management in California over the next two decades.

Based primarily on variations in these two attributes of profitability and regulation, stakeholders determined four potential futures for N in California agriculture. The four scenarios are the following:

  1. End of agriculture:  Rising cost and declining competitiveness for California farmers, with mandates and regulation running ahead of technological capabilities to address N issues.
  2. Regulatory Lemonade: Good prices and strong competitiveness for California farmers, with strict mandates and regulations to control N tempered by flexible implementation to allow technological capabilities to catch up.
  3. Nitropia: Farming economics are favorable, and technological innovation spurs controls of N before there is need for regulation.
  4. Complacent agriculture:  Rising costs and declining competitiveness for California farmers, with incentives and regulation lagging behind technological capabilities to address N issues.


The four scenarios show that the environmental and human health impacts of agricultural N use could vary substantially depending on regulatory responses and the competitiveness of California’s agriculture industry in the global context. The worst-case scenario, from the perspective of outcomes for agriculture, the environment, and human health, evolves from a combination of low agricultural competitiveness and low regulatory pressure to adopt better management practices and technologies, which leads to poor outcomes for the agricultural sector and mixed outcomes for the environment and human health. The two best-case scenarios in terms of outcomes involve high agricultural profitability, which stimulates investment in better management options, and either strict regulations that are rolled out in a flexible and timely manner or government policies and consumer-driven certification schemes that provide incentives for adoption, resulting in better environmental and human health outcomes.

The four scenarios collectively suggest that multiple pathways could lead to positive environmental and human health outcomes around N. On the one hand, strict regulations can force more monitoring, information management, and technology adoption, as happens in Scenarios 1 and 2, while on the other hand, agricultural profitability, often driven by consumer demand and possibly price premiums for best management practices, can also drive industry investment in development and adoption of better practices, as in Scenario 3.

The scenarios suggest that the manner in which regulations are implemented can be as important as the actual extent of regulations, and that farm profitability can be both an enabler of better N management as well as an outcome of N management policies. In Scenario 2, regulations are implemented with flexibility and with more advance notice and involvement from agricultural producers, allowing producers to maintain profitability while changing practices. In Scenario 1, rapid imposition of regulations decrease profitability and farmer buy-in, resulting in good environmental outcomes but poor economic outcomes for the farm sector. Differences in scenarios suggest that pro-active industry participation may help agriculture to adapt successfully to a highly-regulated environment.  Moreover, the scenarios suggest that farm profitability can also be an important driver or at least a critical precursor to innovation in N management, suggesting multiple feedback loops between regulatory policies, farm profitability and N management. 

None of these scenarios by themselves lead to sufficient improvement in groundwater quality to fully address human health concerns by 2030. This shortcoming is primarily due to the fact that N leaches through the soil profile at very slow rates, often taking decades to reach the groundwater. Therefore, even if all agricultural N inputs were 100% ended in 2010, the N that had already been added in prior years would continue to accrue in groundwater in 20 years’ time. For this reason, regulation of agricultural N management alone is unlikely to fully address human health concerns in only 20 years, although it could improve the condition of groundwater over a longer time frame.

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