NRT student publishes on method of rating stakeholder agency

NRT master’s student Kate Bird
NRT master’s student Kate Bird

For NRT master’s student Kate Bird, her first publication all came down to means, motive and opportunity.

She and the 12 other authors on the journal article had worked together for a year and a half in a National Science Foundation program for graduate students, Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems—Educational Resources.

As part of the INFEWS-ER program, Bird and nine other students, three peer mentors and four faculty advisors met regularly on Monday mornings to tackle one of three “cohort challenges.” Bird’s cohort examined the problem of swine waste management in North Carolina and reasons why stakeholders, the people affected by this problem, failed to adopt newer technologies to better deal with it.

Most swine producers in North Carolina continued using the older lagoon and sprayfield system, Bird said. In this system, they treated the manure anaerobically and stored it in large pits before spraying it on nearby cropland.

Bird said studies showed people living near such farms suffered respiratory problems more than people living in other parts of the United States. In recent years of heavy rainfall, the manure-laden lagoons overflowed onto nearby land and into rivers.

“The impact of having a swine farm down the road for your community, both in terms of your health and just quality of life is pretty massive,” Bird said.

In 2000, the attorney general of North Carolina entered into agreements with Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms in which the companies would pay for developing environmentally superior waste management technologies for use on their swine farms in North Carolina. In 2002, the attorney general entered an agreement with independent swine farmers for them to work with the attorney general and North Carolina State University to implement the newer technologies.

Among the new technologies developed were a denitrification and phosphorus removal system, an anaerobic digester system, a composting system, a gasification system and a fluidized bed combustion system.

As a student in natural resource management, Bird puzzled over why the various stakeholders failed to adopt technologies designed to be better for the environment. The other students analyzed the situation from their fields of agronomy, agricultural education and communication, animal science, biological and agricultural engineering, educational leadership, environmental science and law. Together, they identified stakeholders such as farmers and farm organizations, swine farm employees, governmental agencies, environmental organizations, electric utility companies, consumers and local residents.

When they tried to categorize stakeholders and think about their motivation and power to act, one of the faculty mentors suggested means, motive and opportunity as a framework that had been used in areas like business, psychology and cybersecurity.

The students researched how the terms means, motive and opportunity had been used in research and how they might be adapted to categorize stakeholders in the North Carolina swine production system. The students found only four or five publications that used the terms, and the terms weren’t used in stakeholder analysis.

“They were all in one way or another basically using these three components to identify an individual's likelihood of action,” Bird said. “So, if an individual in whatever context had high means, high motive and opportunity, they're likely to take a certain action because they're highly motivated to do it, they're able to do it, they have that capacity, and they have opportunity.”

The students decided to use the three terms to categorize stakeholders on their agency, or ability to take action. The students rated stakeholders on a scale of 0 to 3 as to how much means, motive and opportunity they had.

Bird said they did this informally, using their own knowledge, a review of related literature, informal conversations, the guidance of their INFEWS-ER mentors and sources like census data and agricultural data. She said a research team or resource managers could use the method more formally with interviews and surveys to engage stakeholders in an issue.

Overall, the team found stakeholders lacked means, motive and opportunity to adopt new waste management technology. Swine farmers had low means but higher motive or opportunity while consumers and swine farm employees rated low in all three areas. Residents in the area had low means. Buyers and those providing hogs to farmers to grow had high means but low motive or opportunity. Environmental lobbyists and state government agencies received the highest ratings on means, motive and opportunity. Environmental or social justice organizations had high motive but lower means because of their relatively low revenues and their reliance on public contributions.

“This method could be applied to identify which stakeholders lack means, which might suggest they'd be harder to bring to the table, and so then that group looking to engage stakeholders around an issue could know to perhaps put extra resources or extra effort toward engaging that particular group,” Bird said.

The students summarized these findings and their work in a March 4, 2022, Elementa article, “Means, motive, and opportunity: A method for understanding stakeholder agency within food–energy–water systems.” In the article, they suggested that giving environmental and social justice organizations financial support might tip the scales in favor of adopting the new technologies.

The publication was Bird’s first, and her listing as first author added to the prestige.

“That's exciting, but the process leading up to the publication was equally if not more important to me than getting this end result,” she said. “The importance of having this publication is that we are, hopefully, able to share something that is of value to other people, that someone may be able to use this method that we proposed and get something out of it.”

She also said she enjoyed working with the other people on her INFEWS-ER team and was thankful to the National Science Foundation for providing her with that opportunity and means. She already had the motive.

“It was fun,” she said. “You know, it was 8 a.m. central time on Mondays, and I never wasn't looking forward to that meeting. It was always a positive experience, and I was always engaged.”

— Ronica Stromberg, NRT Program Coordinator

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