Building a Business Case for Investment in Soil Information

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1 Building a Business Case for Investment in Soil Information Market dynamics and institutional strategy ACI 10 Craemer, R, & Barber, M

2 This report was written for the National Land & Water Resources Audit by the Centre for ACIL Tasman Pty Ltd GPO Box 1322, Canberra ACT Telephone (02) , Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this report reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the National Land & Water Resources Audit. The material presented in this report is based on sources that are believed to be reliable. Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of the report, the author gives no warranty that the said sources are correct and accepts no responsibility for any resultant errors contained herein any damages or loss, whatsoever caused or suffered by any individual or corporation. Published by: National Land & Water Resources Audit Postal address: GPO Box 2182 Canberra ACT 2601 Office Location: 86 Northbourne Ave Braddon ACT 2612 Telephone: Facsimile: Internet: National Land & Water Resources Audit 2007 The National Land & Water Resources Audit is an initiative of the Natural Heritage Trust. The Audit provides data, information and nationwide assessments of Australia's land, water and biological resources to support sustainable development. Publication Data: Craemer, R., & Barber, M. Building a Business Case for Investment in Soil Information Information contained in this report may be copied or reproduced for study, research, information or educational purposes, subject to inclusion of an acknowledgement of the source. This project was managed by Michael Lester, Social and Institutional Research Program Manager, Land & Water Australia under funding from the Natural Heritage Trust. For further information go to:

3 Contents Executive summary 2 Introductory comments The characteristics of a good business case 2 3 What is soil information? Existing technologies and costs Soil information and soils NRM data 7 4 The value chain in soils information 10 5 Existing studies on the economics of soil information 12 6 Market characteristics: supply and demand 18 7 Examining market failure arguments Soils and the economics of market failure The public good nature of soil information Transaction costs Incomplete information Coordination failure and economies of scale Externalities Interrelationships of market failures 35 8 From case studies to projects: identifying areas with market failure and high prospectivity Fundamental R&D Soil microbes Soils as carbon sinks Externality arguments Acid sulfate soils Salinity and acidification Dissemination and implementation Infrastructure investment and options Nested mapping The portfolio approach, uncertainty and options 48 9 Institutional context and strategy What about the role of rural R&D corporations? Who cares about soils in government? Developing a strategy Comment on levels of jurisdiction 54 References 56 v iii

4 Boxes, figures and tables Box 1 Natural monopoly the link to increasing returns to scale 24 Box 2 Research on soil microbes: 1999 Cotton CRC workshop 39 Figure 1 A simplified soils economic life cycle 8 Figure 2 A basic value chain the R&D impact life cycle 11 Table 1 Selected soil parameters and potential users 4 Table 2 A benefit classification system 15 Table 3 Examples of demand side driven projects and soil information requirements 20 Table 4 Market segments with summary information 21 iv

5 Executive summary Soil information is valuable, but the economic rationale for public funding of soil information especially large scale mapping programs appears to be poorly understood and/or articulated at present. Public investment in soil information needs to be strongly linked to market failure and public good arguments. A value chain concept and economic principles enable us to identify the following areas in which market failure arguments could be used in support of a business case for government investment in soil information: Basic R&D (soil biota, bacteria and pathogens, etc.) where the size of initial outlays, uncertainty, and likely issues with benefit capture limit private sector interest; Externalities (e.g., some aspects of acid sulfate soils, salinity and erosion) in the remediation of which soil information plays a key role; and Transaction costs and information failure (getting information to potential adopters, with government playing an enabling role) where private enterprise currently has no incentive to provide information to land users. Conversely, it is important to know what not to use as the basis for arguments supporting public investment in soil information: Yields or farm returns if there are clear prospects for increasing yields or farm returns, private operators have sufficient incentives to invest in soil information; and Natural monopoly (economies of scale) the indivisibilities that drive natural monopoly arguments do not appear to exist in soil information. The significance of labour costs in collecting soil information (field work, e.g., ground truthing) limits the economies of scale argument. Finally, the infrastructure provision argument has some appeal but could be risky. It is risky because: In the past, justifications for governments providing infrastructure have often relied on natural monopoly arguments (and, as we have just stated, this is a weak argument in the case of soil information); Secondly, one may note that there has a been a general trend in governments moving out of infrastructure provision; and Despite much talk of a knowledge economy, knowledge infrastructure is still a relatively untested concept (at least in terms of precedents for public funding of soil mapping). The infrastructure provision argument may nevertheless have some appeal because: v

6 it has the potential of focusing attention on the value of options that (some types of) soil information would create or retain for society; participation in the forthcoming Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) bid for funding with the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) could provide a suitable avenue to test the case for knowledge infrastructure and value of options. It appears critical to us, however, that the concept of information failure be tested and addressed first and foremost. If potential users do not see value in soil information even if they have been fully informed, there would appear to be little point in generating additional information for them (whether they be private end users or public users). If they do see value but are not willing to pay for the product, one needs to identify the barriers to adoption which could include, for example, an inability to pay or simply that costs would outweigh benefits. The poor record that government appears to have had in communicating NRM practices to agricultural landholders must also be borne in mind in this context: In 1997 the ABS asked agricultural landholders if they had changed their farming practices for conservation reasons and from whom they received the most support in implementing these changes few farmers cited government agencies and land management groups as providing the most support (3% and 1% respectively). (ABS 2002) The literature on the economics of soil information reports large benefit-cost ratios for investing in soil information for many specific projects or applications (i.e., relatively small, discrete and identifiable mapping efforts), but the economic case for large mapping programs has not been made to date. We believe that the best prospects for obtaining funding for a mapping program would be where such a program occurs as a input into a strategic basket of projects, identified on the basis of a clear market-failure rationale, with strong internal spillovers (i.e., between projects), and a focus on options created for future use. Pooling of data across the portfolio, and demonstrated reuse of the data, should be an integral part of this strategy, as it would give sustenance to the claim that there is value in collecting soil information once, because it can be used twice (or more often). Where possible, part of the strategy should also be to access private sector information that is already being collected. As a practical matter, for clarity any proposals for funding should, where possible, provide dollar estimates of the likely minimum benefits obtained alongside the dollar estimates of funding required. vi

7 Building a sound investment case would require inputs from a range of government players at all levels of jurisdiction. In the first instance it is important to identify and engage with the institutional users of soil information and where possible obtain a joint initial agreement on a willingness to pay for soil information. This could occur under an umbrella group. It is important that someone be in charge of building and driving the case (see note below). Work needs to be done to identify the appropriate institutional mechanism by which appropriate oversight and implementation functions could be delivered. The notion of a business case We would also point out that the notion of a business case is traditionally associated with a private entity seeking funds for a specified investment plan. Such a business case must provide a clear outline of path to market, including how to package, market and deliver the good or service in question. Such an outline clearly cannot be prepared, or makes little sense, if the product is poorly specified or if the key stakeholders are unknown. Just as is the case for a private business case, a public investment case too needs to have a clearly defined stakeholder driving the process and at least some idea of the product, process or outcome being delivered. Conclusion focusing on capabilities and options Given the difficulties in pinpointing specific informational products for which government intervention would be justified, we conclude that a broader approach that focuses attention towards government funding of capability to generate (types of) soil information would be most fruitful. This approach needs to carefully evolve along with stakeholder identification and should reflect the economic principles identified in this report as such it is likely to focus on basic R&D, training, and other areas with significant identifiable externality effects, transaction costs and information failures. We also note that focusing on capabilities leads quite organically to a different way of thinking about the value of soil information, i.e., towards that of generating options that society may choose to exercise in future. Finally, the litmus test of economic principles does not apply where a lack of funding significantly curtails an institution s capability to comply with a mandated obligation to monitor and evaluate NRM strategies such cases of legislative failure must however be clearly substantiated so that they can be urgently addressed. Introductory comments vii

8 2 Introductory comments It is our understanding that the current project was initiated by the National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) at least in part as a test case of how one might analyse the value of having access to better information on natural resources, in this case soils. Land and Water Australia (LWA) joined NLWRA in funding this consultancy. The context for the exercise is provided by future rounds of natural resource assessments and broader questions of natural resource management (NRM) at the government agency level. In the early stages of this consultancy, we discovered that soil information means different things to different people. For ease of analysis in this report we propose a conceptual separation of basic physical and spatial characteristics of soil information from those varied and complex applications in which soil information is ultimately used, i.e., the products and processes that ultimately inform land use decision-making, statutory planning, environmental reporting, infrastructure development, and so on. We use a value chain concept that begins with basic research and invention (e.g., understanding of soil biology) and moves through more applied research with innovation (i.e., development and refinement) to informational products and, ultimately, outcomes or impacts. Maps and other soil informational products or applications that are relevant to NRM questions, however defined, simply represent one possible set of applications as one moves along the value chain. Collections of data and mapping efforts (e.g., SALIS and ASRIS) provide infrastructure that underpins the value chain (or, alternatively conceptualised, precedes the initial stages of R&D). One of the valuable features of soil information is that, once generated, it can be used repeatedly and across a range of final applications soil information can therefore create significant options for future use, but only if such information is appropriate to needs, is retained, and remains easily accessible to future users. The idea to collect once, use twice (or more) makes sense in economic terms, and the more often a piece of information can indeed be utilised the higher its likely cost-effectiveness. Soil information is required in a range of applications in which they are combined with other, adjunct informational inputs (e.g., on landscape, hydrology, climate, etc.) in order to yield the models and outputs that are thought to affect land use. One of the problems comes at the final stage of the value chain where products or outputs are produced not for payment in a market, but in order to meet institutional goals and objectives. It is unclear to what degree such informational outputs or outcomes reflect requests from Introductory comments 1

9 ultimate users of the information, and to what degree they are simply science or institutionally driven. In other words, there is little value to soil information itself unless it is combined with other skills and knowledge and unless it is of relevance to final users. Whilst there have certainly been what may be termed generational shifts in thinking about natural resource management since World War II that have reduced soil losses and increased general awareness about the nature of Australian soils, it is unclear how much the mapping efforts and other investments in soils R&D during the past twenty to thirty years have yielded desired outcomes such as reductions in salinity, acidification, soil compaction, etc. The question therefore remains, is there a strong business case for further investment in soil information, and if so, what type of soil information? Or has the pulling back from commitments to generate some types of soil information (as discussed in Chapter 9 below) been justified? 2.1 The characteristics of a good business case We believe that steps listed below would be necessary to build a strong business case, and that the steps involved would go beyond the preparation of this study. Making the case for investment is really part of a process of which this report forms a part: Market failure must be convincingly demonstrated; A track record of returns on previous investments should be built; Significant areas of prospectivity for investment, and that are strongly linked to the market failure argument, should be identified; In each area, the objectives and tangible outputs of the investment effort should be clearly stated apart from strengthening the initial case for investment, this would provide means by which progress could subsequently be monitored; Conservative estimates of benefits should be applied, taking proper account of the counterfactual (i.e., what progress might occur in the absence of the proposed intervention); Using a bottom-up approach to arrive at credible lower bound estimates of tangible additional benefits generated (i.e., over and above the counterfactual) and that exceed program costs would be a key part of such an approach; A communications and reporting strategy that engages with key stakeholders, and disseminates findings to inform the community, end users and other public bodies would play an essential part in keeping up momentum in future; and Introductory comments 2

10 Someone needs to be in charge of this process, and this needs to be communicated to all stakeholders providing a focal point so that case studies and evidence can be pooled and the track record continually revised and updated, and the process driven forward. Likely challenges to this approach The early stages of this consultancy demonstrated that the publicly accessible literature on the economics of soil information is extremely limited. There appears to be no easily accessible material that would allow us to link past soil information collection efforts with quantifiable results observed. This makes it extremely difficult to build up a good track record. It may be easier for a government insider to access relevant documents than it has been for us. Introductory comments 3

11 3 What is soil information? Basic soil information can be defined as the measured soil physical, chemical and biological characteristics, and basic descriptions of spatial elements (see Table 1). Soil information is obtained by the survey of soils in the field and analysis of samples in the laboratory; as Table 1 shows, but most typical soil parameters are relevant to all users. While the concept of soil is well established, the definition of soil information varies according to the perspective of the discipline or the occupation using the soil. The type of information required and the method of collection depends on the particular project, the size of the budget, the regulations and the spatial and temporal scale of the survey. As summarised in McKenzie (1991) there are a range of levels of detail at which soil can be described in land evaluation. At its most detailed level the number of variables can reach up to 500, and this would include not only profile descriptions but also direct measures of parameters that control soil processes, i.e., beyond routine chemistry and physical data this would include dynamic descriptions including data on fluxes of nutrients hydraulic conductivity, solute movement, etc. Table 1 Selected soil parameters and potential users Parameters Primary Industries Mining & Exploration (incl. rehab) Engineer ing Govern ment Heavy and light Industries Urban and periurban Soil Experts Soil physical qualities Bulk density Particle Size Aggregate Stability Porosity Compressibility Shrink-swell potential Water Infiltration Water Content Water Potential Water retention Hydraulic conductivity Field capacity and available water capacity Solute content Solute and water flux Gas diffusivity and flux What is soil information? 4

12 Parameters Primary Industries Mining & Exploration (incl. rehab) Engineer ing Govern ment Heavy and light Industries Urban and periurban Soil Experts Soil chemical qualities ph and acidity Salinity Trace elements Anions Cations Cation/Anion exchange capacity Redox Kinetic methods Equilibrium modelling Mineralogy Organic matter Soil Biology Viruses Bacteria Archaea Eucarya Basic spatial characteristics Parent materials or substrate Climate Landform Native vegetation Distribution Data source: ACIL Tasman Pty Ltd 3.1 Existing technologies and costs Primary soil information is acquired by field sampling (e.g., using spade, drill or back hoe) and laboratory analysis and is supported by: Remote sensing; Literature and reports; Soil classification, geological and land-systems maps; Experienced land managers and soil scientists; and Pure and applied soil research and development. Collection of good quality soil information, e.g., at the level of detail that is required to address some of the key NRM questions, is still an expensive exercise as it relies heavily on time spent in the field. Manderson & Palmer (2006) state that: What is soil information? 5

13 Cost is the greatest challenge regarding the provision of new soil information. Field work is a significant component, which can account for around two-thirds of the cost of soil survey... Terrain analysis, remote sensing and other predominantly in-office techniques are increasingly important, but gaining full confidence in the information they provide can be achieved only by physically going out in the field and examining what is actually there. Also, the essential characteristic that the cost of survey varies exponentially with the scale at which the land has been mapped continues to hold (McKenzie, pers comm.., Hallsworth 1978). Unfortunately, little has been published on the effects of recent technological progress on the costs of obtaining soil information. Even the latest publication available to the consultants i.e., Manderson & Palmer (2006) simply updates soil survey costs reported in the papers by Bie & Beckett (1970, 1971) by adjusting for inflation. These cost estimates are therefore based on surveys undertaken during the 1960s, i.e., possibly forty years ago, and no allowance has been made for technological progress, better data collection and interpretation systems, etc. This can perhaps be taken as an indication that there have been no major breakthrough developments that have reduced the costs of soil survey and mapping. It may however be that the issue of costs has not been formally revisited, and technological advances acknowledged, by soil scientists because at the same time as technology is improving and making collection of some variables cheaper, other data needs continue to emerge as new and more complex questions (such as those relating to NRM) continually increase the complexity of field work and other data collection and interpretation requirements: The development of high resolution sensors for various aspects of the environment is changing how soil and land resource surveys are done. Most significant are high resolution digital elevation models, spectral-reflectance remote sensing (e.g. multispectral, hyperspectral and time series) and airborne geophysics. (Working Group on Land Resource Assessment 2005) On balance, whilst it may therefore be that costs of survey are roughly similar per sq km or per ha, it is likely that the information that is delivered by a modern survey has a much higher qualitative standard at least this is our impression following some of our discussions during this consultancy. Accurate up-to-date costings of any survey and mapping effort would nevertheless form an essential part of a credible business case for investing in soils information, and some work may be required to demonstrate costeffectiveness in this area. We point to the example of Gourlay and Sparks (1996) who state that: What is soil information? 6

14 farmers along the Murray River can pay as much as $37.00 per hectare for a soil survey when comparable or better results could be delivered using existing radiometric data for less than 30 cents per hectare. This implies that potential differences in costings of mapping efforts might be more than 100-fold. It is clearly highly desirable that a least cost solution would be identified and presented in any future investment case. 3.2 Soil information and soils NRM data This first task identified by the Project Brief for this consultancy was to: Define the nature and scope of soils NRM data as an input to sustainable land use decision making. As argued in more detail in Chapter 4 of this report, soil information is an essential input into the types of datasets and informational products that are utilised by natural resource managers in their decision making processes. The range and complexity of these processes implies that whilst the scope of soils information can be defined relatively easily, this is not the case for soils NRM data, and much less so for soils NRM data for sustainable land use decision making. If we were to accept, for example, that farmers are natural resource managers, then the price of land, wool, meat, grains, etc., could form part of soils NRM data. The concept of soils NRM data can thus at best be loosely defined. Introducing the concept of sustainability further complicates matters, because sustainability can also be interpreted in a number of differing ways. In this context, it should be recalled that the Standing Committee of Agriculture in Australia defined sustainable agriculture as: the use of farming practices and systems which maintain or enhance the economic viability of agricultural production; the natural resource base; and other ecosystems, which are influenced by agricultural activities (SCA 1991; quoted in NLWRA 2001) This definition covers sustainable land use decision-making in the context of agriculture, one of the main end-users of soil information. It is however less clear how one would define sustainable land use when we broaden the range of uses to include residential, commercial and industrial uses as well as returning land to pre-agricultural uses. As Figure 1 illustrates albeit in a very simplified manner land use (and consequently the state of soils) can move through different stages, first as a piece of land is cleared for agricultural use and later as it may be converted into land for residential use. Society will have different sets of predominating values associated with each stage in the economic life cycle of a piece of land. What is soil information? 7

15 It is clear that converting agricultural land to a residential site may damage a certain amount of soil. In the soils conservation literature, this is sometimes discussed as problems associated with sealing the building of roads, playing fields, car parks, buildings, etc., often involves the discarding and sealing off of soils. Nevertheless, these processes are accepted and indeed often consciously endorsed by the community as part of economic development. It is not clear at what point such processes become truly unsustainable, especially given the increases in agricultural productivity witnessed over the past century. The European Union s experts have recently warned that: Damage to soils generally occurs slowly, is relatively difficult to reverse, and often causes significant effects at places distant from the soil itself. In some cases the response is not linear and there can be abrupt and catastrophic change, which is typical of highly buffered systems. (Van-Camp et al. 2004, p. 847) It is indeed clear that cumulatively, small increments of damage over many years could lead of irreversible damage to soils, and that this could ultimately lead to damage to the overall resource base and other ecosystems. It has been argued that breakdowns in the ability of the soils to function have caused the declines and disappearance of previous civilisations, but in the context of modern agricultural systems and continually rising levels of productivity, the literature on soils does not tell us when the tipping point from sustainable land use to unsustainable land use can be expected to be reached. Figure 1 A simplified soils economic life cycle Land clearing Urbanisation Natural state Agricultural use Residential, Commercial or Industrial Use Remediation or reversal Amenity and ecological values Productivity values Engineering and environmental values Data source: ACIL Tasman. What is soil information? 8

16 Defining sustainable land use therefore becomes much more difficult when we take into account the community s options and preferences for alternative land uses. We cannot offer a boiler plate solution to the complex questions that arise when different NRM perspectives are broached, but note that even within the NRM discourse a range of positions can be taken (e.g., pastoral, conservationist, deep ecology, etc.). A relatively broad interpretation of soil information for sustainable soil resource management might involve a shift away from a more productivity oriented philosophy of land management to the collection and use of soil information for purposes that may include, but ultimately go beyond, concerns of agricultural productivity. Going further than this, a stronger view of sustainable soil natural resource management might involve a paradigm shift under which landholders and policy makers would seek the following: Maintenance of the soil productive capacity and reduction of inputs; Minimisation of off-site impacts; Minimisation and prevention of soil degradation; Integration and interpretation of soil chemistry-physics-biology data; Development of a soil monitoring and evaluation program for long-term planning and adaptive management; Identification of appropriate landuse(s) within a changing environment; and Marketing and branding of products that are adopting sustainable soil NRM practices. The current report makes no value judgment on the desirability of taking such an approach, but the values created by soil information that could work towards these objectives are included in our framework, which begins by positing a value chain along which value is cumulatively added. What is soil information? 9

17 4 The value chain in soils information The Project Brief provided for this consultancy made references to a value chain in soil information. The elements of the value chain were to include core data and enhanced data, information products, analysis, modelling, and soil advisory/testing services. These elements cannot, however, be linked together to create a chain along which value is added incrementally, i.e., stage by stage analysis and modelling, for example, can occur at any stage and soil advisory/testing services will use existing data as well as generate new data. Information products may draw on previous models and feed into new models. Our approach to the value chain analysis begins by narrowing the focus on soils information which has been interpreted to include a spatial element rather than trying to deconstruct NRM arguments that make reference to soils. Complex questions around best NRM strategies will inevitably link soil information with questions about plants, trees, water, climate, topography, land use, and so on. We cannot hope to resolve these kinds of questions in the context of the current study. Figure 2 shows a value chain along which value is added in stages. This proposes a number of stages or horizons from fundamental R&D through to commercialisation or final impact. In the context of soils, it may be recalled that our current understanding of soil biology, for example, depends at least in part on the existing state-of-play in other disciplines (e.g., chemistry, physical sciences, biology, etc.). Basic soil characteristics, i.e., soil information, that we have at the start of the value-adding process forms part of the existing stock of knowledge. Basic research seeks to discover new knowledge about soils. This may involve testing hypotheses about soil biology, and soil testing, core data collection, and some baseline mapping may also be undertaken at this stage. In the context of soils NRM it may also be noted that surveys of potential adopters knowledge of soils may also be considered basic research. As a result of basic R&D, areas with some prospectivity may be identified and new processes or products invented. The horizons or stages then apply the new knowledge or invention to increasingly more specific levels of application, until finally a product can be commercialised or a technology or process deployed, with consequent impacts upon the economy, environment and society. In the case of soils, for example, we can move along the stages starting with a basic hypothesis on soil biota which is then incorporated into a model that is The value chain in soils information 10

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