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Agriculture and rural development: the necessary convergence

by Bertrand Hervieu *

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* Director of Research at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research, France), Bertrand Hervieu is particularly interested in the transformations of rural society and agricultural policies. He is the author of numerous publications on French rural society and one of the coordinators of the Bruges Group which comprises some twenty eminent individuals of Europe eager to contribute to the societal debate on the future of agricultural policy. See recent publication of the Bruges Group: "Agriculture, un tournant nécessaire" "Agriculture, a necessary turning point", 1996; available in French, Spanish and Dutch Groupe de Bruges, 104 rue du Plein-Soleil, F-34980 St-Gély, Fax: +33 4 67 84 89 45

Agriculture can be doing well while rural areas are doing poorly. The future of Europe's rural areas therefore cannot be envisaged without taking into account the role of agriculture in the management of these spaces. How in such a case does one imagine an agriculture that is in keeping with the expectations and interests of European societies and areas as a whole?

Rural development is faced with two pitfalls: the first consists in only thinking of rural development in terms of the development of agriculture; the second is to think of rural society as separate from the agricultural world, when not against it.

To think of the development of rural society only in terms of agriculture leads to a number of very familiar impasses. We know in fact that the agricultural population no longer accounts for more than a small proportion of the working population of rural society: in a way, the notion itself of rural development has emerged from the awareness that the vertiginous growth of productivity gains in agriculture made it necessary to invent new sources of wealth and job creation in rural society to keep the population there and limit the exodus. It can be said that it is indeed because of the successful development of the model strongly favouring productivity in agriculture that the problem of rural development has emerged.

The paradox with which we are faced is the following: at the same time as it becomes a very great agricultural and agri-industrial power, Europe stops being an agrarian civilisation and some of its areas become optional for agriculture. A prodigious movement of concentration is under way, tending to relocate productions according to the places of processing and distribution. The Rouen-London-Amsterdam triangle of ports has such a power of attraction that it is possible to imagine a scenario thirty years from now in which 60% to 70% of Europe's agricultural production would tend to be concentrated along the rim of the English Channel and North Sea, from Brest to Copenhagen.

Agriculture can be doing well while a large number of rural areas are doing poorly. We therefore cannot think of the future of rural areas without weighing the role of agriculture in the management of these spaces, especially since the European contribution to dealing with this problem begins with the agricultural budget: ECU 40 billion in 1997, over half of the budget of the European Union.

How can this conclusion be taken into account and an agriculture imagined that is in keeping with the expectations and interests of European societies and areas as a whole. To devise this programme, we must first take seriously the fact that agriculture does not only produce tangible goods but intangible goods as well; not only food products but non-food products as well; not only market productions but non-market productions as well.

Quality, the mainspring of change

In the case of food productions, an initial guideline is necessary which consists in replacing the objective of quantity by that of quality. The notion of quality is probably the mainspring of the economic and cultural change to be implemented.

The first dimension of quality concerns the quality of the product itself. In this area, requirements are growing and sometimes contradictory, but these contradictions must not conceal what is essential: the European food trade has become standardised sooner than could have been imagined 15 or 20 years ago, and the standardisation of the agricultural products put on the market has contributed to this. Not without a few episodes that have crystallised consumer awareness: everyone remembers the emotion of consumers in the veal hormone affair or during the epidemic of the so-called "mad cow" disease.

The sensitivity of public opinion to sanitary problems in food matters has become great, and consumer requirements in this area apply to mass products and to luxury products. Those who are exasperated by certain extremes in this matter say that the criteria to define quality are many and often subjective: however, they would be wrong to lose interest in the challenge today of defining the quality of products intended for the food trade. Quality is defined on several levels: quality of taste, nutritional quality, sanitary quality related to freshness and preservation, quality of presentation, etc. Producers, distributors and consumers have different assessments of the respective importance of these various levels, and opinions differ on each of them.

It is nonetheless possible to come up with definitions and to continually improve them in a debate in which all the partners involved participate: the introduction of labels, of registered designations of origin is a good example of what can be done and this with remarkable ratchet effects for a production and for a specific region. The LEADER programmes, moreover, largely contribute to these actions.

"Standardised tailor-made"

But it would be wrong to deduce from this example that these logics of improving quality only concern exceptional and marginal productions. They involve just as much everyday consumption, in a constant shift between "ordinary" products and "refined" products. At the level of the whole of society, preoccupations with taste and health have become dominant. The growth in the daily consumption of easy-to-serve standardised prepared products which the consumer expects to meet criteria of quality, that is to say total safeness, is accompanied by perfectly parallel growth in demand for products identified as rare, "different": regional products, farm products, products labelled 'to be cooked', etc. The growing consumption of prepared products is accompanied by a marked development in gastronomy. These methods of consumption are spreading in our countries in favour, namely, of the transformation of distribution methods.

In a certain number of countries, so-called "sundry" products and so-called "quality" products today may be purchased at the same place: quality is not limited to the products offered for sale by specialised distributors or large caterers. Large supermarkets also have their requirements for quality and more and more are in search of the product identified as original but equal, with steady quality. The quality farmhouse product is therefore no longer only for sale at the farm. But to have access to supermarkets, it must meet criteria that imply organisation, grouping, packaging.

For the food trade in much of Europe, we have entered a system of "standardised tailor-made", and it is therefore a whole subtle job that has to be pursued to satisfy these additional or simultaneous expectations that open up prospects that are probably not unlimited but are inevitable. What is certain is that in a sector like food where demand is constantly changing, the only producers who can survive are those capable of participating in a complex process of supply and negotiation, in which numerous cultural factors come into play. It is clear: now the notion of quality does not only apply to the product itself but also to the production process and the production support which in this case is the land and water.

Non-food productions

The history of the 20th century has taught us that developed societies can mine, extract and utilise natural resources less and less and become societies that invent and produce their energy raw material. In this context, the organic and biotechnological production of energy (ethanol, ether from colza, etc.) becomes a long-term strategic and environmental challenge, comparable in importance to yesterday's food challenge, even if still quite often we are talking about courses of action that require long-term experimentation and involve risk-taking by different partners, particularly industrialists.

In addition to these energy productions, agriculture is called upon to provide basic molecules for industries of synthesis, textiles or pharmaceuticals.

To introduce the agricultural world through these non-food productions into a new energy and environment culture is a novel direction of great significance.

Intangible goods

But agriculture is not only an activity creating tangible goods and commodities. It is also - and can become more and more so - a sector producing intangible goods, and this in two main categories.

(Agri) culture

The first category comprises everything related to culture, health, gastronomy, tourism, education and training of children. New occupations are to be invented to meet the expectations of consumers and citizens. This demand should be less and less a "secondary" or "subsidiary" demand, associated with the recreational activities and entertainment of city-dwellers deprived of the open air. Not only does the consumption of culture and recreational activities represent a growing share of the expenses in the household budget, but this demand is also the expression of a more profound aspiration to redefine - going beyond the museums, parks and other exhibitions intended to explain to these city-dwellers an agricultural world that is further and further removed from them - the link that society maintains, through agriculture and farmers, with nature.

This educational expectation is an important challenge. It refers back to one of the essential paradoxes of a situation experienced by a growing percentage of the European population which has never eaten so well in terms of diversity, quantity, freshness, etc., but never known so little about what it was eating: in an increasingly urbanised Europe, less and less families have rural roots and everyone has met children who at eight or nine years old had still not made the connection between a hamburger and a cow! Culturally, it is without question a loss. Politically, it is a risk if one accepts that this ignorance can generate at any time irrational collective reactions. School alone or even the family alone will not be enough to disseminate this knowledge and learning. The professional circles concerned, in particular farmers, should make their contribution. Imagine what the cultural contribution in the broad sense would be if each European child had the possibility at primary school to visit a farm to see what an animal is, what a plant is, how they are cared for, what is done with him... This societal challenge is already at the heart of a large number of LEADER projects. Eventually, the aim will certainly be to determine how to generalise these multiple experiences.

Environment

The second category of intangible productions comprises productions of nature, the environment, water, the landscape, balance in the areas. It is obvious that a country - and even more so a continent - that has these natural assets is richer, including from an accounting point of view, than a polluted, run-down, depleted... space. In the past , this wealth was the fruit of an agricultural activity whose purpose was the global development of the land. In this sense, the patrimonial concept of the land had the advantage of having the individual interest (that of the farmers) converge with the general interest (that of society). By treating the land like real estate capital which is only worth what it "yields", the logic of strongly favouring productivity has detached farming from the mission of preserving the environment which was associated with it (at least implicitly) in the patrimonial concept.

In other words, if we want harmonious landscapes, rich land, limpid water, areas full of life, a viable envi onment, a varied nature, we must now choose to produce them, that is to say make them the objective of a deliberate and publicly debated policy. In this perspective, a vast site is opening up for farmers and all those who want to practice the professions relating to spaces.

While the first category of intangible goods produced by farmers will be increasingly taken care of by the market, the second category will for a long time still depend on public payment, corresponding to the creation of collective or public wealth. To create and maintain an intergenerational heritage, to renew a collective identity illustrated in particular by landscapes, to ensure the quality of day-to-day life are the missions of general interest whose financing is the responsibility of the community. In what way would contributing to this and earning a living by it diminish the social status of farmers, especially since the wealth produced is, more than in any other case, non relocatable wealth?

A job of synthesis

Another way of practising the profession of farmer is looming on the horizon. To move beyond the standard, technical accountant, model of today's farmer, the new generation is not being asked to reinvent yesterday's farmer but to invent a job of synthesis, a short-term and long-term job, a job of the market and the area. Not only manager, not only technician, not only gardener, not only coordinator, but probably all of that at the same time.

This redefinition means that the relationship that the agricultural world maintains with the public authorities has to be set in a new context. Rather than an abstract contract between agriculture and Europe, it is a contract defined between each one of tomorrow's farmers and the public authorities that has to be imagined. It is an individualised contract, with specifications, stipulating the rights and duties of each side.

ince agriculture is necessarily a public affair and therefore everyone's business, it is the relationship between the farmer and the public authorities that has to be modernised today. By explicitly directing public money towards the preservation and improvement of the area, environment, water, landscape, we will at the same time avoid introducing a definitively dual agriculture: on the one hand, an exporting agriculture monopolising public money, yesterday in the form of export refunds (according to the difference between the guaranteed price and world price), today in the form of compensations, and tomorrow in the form of repairs of the damage caused to the environment; on the other hand, an agriculture weakened on the markets, occupying space and requiring national solidarity to avoid complete impoverishment.

Agricultural development and rural development

To put the requirements of balanced area and management of the environment and landscapes back at the heart of the definition of public intervention is to refuse this dualism that is developing to the benefit of the diversity of agricultures, farmers and areas. It is to invent a new agricultural mission, at least as mobilising as the food mission that had to be carried out in the post-war period. It is to put the area at the heart of the definition of agricultural policy. It is finally to explicitly have agricultural development converge with rural development.

From this point of view, the LEADER programmes all appear as places of experimentation of this convergence. Considered as a whole, these experiences truly offer a new picture of farmers and rural spaces confronted with complexity, turning their back on a unidimensional approach to apprehend the economic, cultural, territorial challenges. And it is truly by trying to meet new expectations from European societies that agriculture and rural spaces will tomorrow help strengthen the construction of the Union, as they did yesterday by meeting the food challenge that confronted Europe in its early days.

source: LEADER Magazine nr.15 - Summer 1997


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