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| Europe’s countryside – more than a food conveyor belt

As human populations mushroomed and advanced production technology entered the farming sector, the view of agriculture as some sort of ‘food factory’ came to the fore. However, with increasing concerns over the environment and sustainability, the holistic concept of ‘multifunctionality’ emerged to try to strike a sustainable balance – economically, socially and environmentally – between the various uses of agricultural land. The EU-backed MultAgri project’s task was to find out how this could be done.

The entire range of natural resources
Sustainability is all about using the entire range of natural resources in a manner that can be sustained in the long term
‘Multifunctional agriculture’ and ‘sustainability’ are sometimes confused. “There is a confusion between multifunctionality and sustainability,” explains Dominique Cairol, coordinator of the EU-backed MultAgri project. “For our project, it was important to clarify the difference.”

Sustainability is all about using the entire range of natural resources, not just agricultural ones, in a manner that can be sustained in the long term – so that future generations can continue to benefit from the Earth’s bounty – by reducing waste and unnecessary consumption, and by finding more renewable alternative sources of energy and raw materials.

Multifunctionality pertains to the multiple uses of agricultural and forest land: farming, wildlife habitat, biodiversity repository, tourist destination, and simply a subjective source of beauty. The concept rightly recognises that the countryside is more than a food production line and that agriculture plays a crucial socio-economic and environmental role in rural communities and society at large. That means that multifunctionality can make an important contribution to sustainability but does not necessarily have to be sustainable.

Multifunctionality has become an important component of European policy which the EU believes should be targeted through non-trade distorting and transparent ‘green box’ policies.

Appearance on the world stage

It is difficult to determine exactly when the term “multifunctionality” was first used. It was in use for forestry before it appeared in agricultural circles. The concept was already in circulation before the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examined it around 1999, although the controversies that emerged from their work threw multifunctionality into the global spotlight.

The Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations, which ended in 1994, started a period of international questioning of the legitimacy of providing domestic support to farmers, which began to be considered as trade distortive. This led to a general debate on the rationale of such subsidies, especially in countries with a long tradition of supporting their farmers, such as the EU Member States, the United States and Japan.

Why should agriculture be supported by society? To answer to this question, these countries turned to their rural economists to find if there were scientific arguments in favour of domestic support to agriculture in comparison with other economic sectors. As citizen food concerns and social demand for greener agriculture grew, multifunctionality appeared as a major concept in the context of this debate.

The functional path to sustainability

EU policy acknowledges that multifunctionality is an important contributor to sustainability and the 18-month MultAgri project sought to find out precisely how this could be achieved. “MultAgri is founded on the hypothesis that, for agriculture to be sustainable… its multifunctional dimension must be acknowledged and promoted,” the project partners explain.

“Multifunctionality can lead to sustainability, but exactly how is not entirely clear,” Cairol notes. “That’s why it is important to support policy-makers with timely research.”

And that is precisely what MultAgri set out to do. “The goal of our project was to conduct a survey of what has been achieved in the field of multifunctionality and identify research gaps.”

The project focused on six main areas:

  • Definitions of multifunctionality and its contribution to sustainable development
  • Consumer and societal demands
  • Models, techniques, tools and indicators for examining multifunctionality
  • Multifunctionality of activities, plurality of identities, and new institutional arrangements
  • Setting-up and managing of relevant public policies; the development of new markets and services
  • Evaluating policies with respect to the multifunctionality of agriculture: observation tools and support for policy formulation and evaluation.

Multiple definitions and definitive challenges

A fundamental challenge they faced was determining what exactly multifunctional agriculture was – there are almost as many definitions as groups interested in the subject. “Multifunctionality is not a clear notion. Clarifying it was one of our major challenges and it was also one of our main successes,” observes Cairol.

MultAgri reviewed and compared the diversity of definitions in circulation. However, the project did not aim to find “a consensus on an ultimate, ‘best’ definition that would fit all countries and streams of thought, or to decide what is good or not”, the project partners point out. On the contrary, the diversity of understandings presented the researchers with rich pickings in their quest to determine the challenges facing multifunctionality.

Time was another key element. “The major challenge we faced was the duration. We were 26 organisations from 15 countries, and we had to coordinate this large network and get results in a limited time.”

But this diversity of expertise was MultAgri’s major strength. “Our broad network was essential to our ability to explore the different definitions and policies related to multifunctionality,” Cairol stresses.

Multifaceted agenda

Ploughing through the available evidence was only part of MultAgri’s job. “It wasn’t enough for us to identify the state of the art; we also needed to determine a framework for moving forward,” Cairol explains.

The network has compiled a Strategic Research Agenda focusing on four main areas: scientific aspects, policy issues, the new Member States and candidate countries, and developing countries.

But more research is only part of the story. “Although researchers are turning multifunctionality into a framework to analyse complexity, it is first of all a social and political phenomenon,” the partners note. This means that effective models of governance and participation need to be devised to ensure its continued relevance.

The partners delivered their findings and final reports at a seminar in Brussels on 1 September which was attended by more than 100 stakeholders.

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Dominique Cairol
MultAgri coordinator
Direction générale
Parc de Tourvoie, BP 44
F 92163 Antony Cedex
Tel: +33 1 40 96 60 50
Fax: +33 1 40 96 61 34