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1 September 2008 Multifunctional Agriculture: More Than Bread Alone
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A growing number of policymakers, academics from a variety of disciplines, farmers, and consumers are expressing interest in what is called multifunctional agriculture (MFA). Under the MFA rubric, farming produces not just food, fiber, and energy but also a host of societal benefits. Research in recent years has shown that these benefits can include cleaner water, sequestered carbon, landscape amenities such as wet-lands and wildlife habitat, and rural community employment. But how can we promote the development of such agricultural systems on farms and at a wider—national or even global—scale? And before we do that, how do we go about identifying MFA consistently?

Multifunctional Agriculture: A Transition Theory Perspective, a new book by Geoff Wilson, is an important step toward explaining why some narrowly focused agricultural systems are developed into those with higher levels of MFA. Wilson lays the foundation for his discussion by attempting to answer this question: How do we explain changes over time in the level of multifunctionality in agricultural systems anywhere on the globe?

At the center of MFA is the farm, Wilson says. He describes how a system's multifunctionality can be gauged using a combination of indicators such as productivity, environmental sustainability, the intensity of reliance on chemicals and other inputs, and the level of farm diversification, including the variety of crops and livestock on the land and beyond-the-farm enterprises such as agricultural tourism or processing. Also among the indicators of multifunctionality is the level of connection to the rural community that a farm attains by employing people, buying local inputs, or selling products through rural businesses. Another, according to Wilson, is agriculture's provision of food for consumption close to the farm, reducing reliance on global food chains controlled by large agribusinesses. Additionally, the attitudes of farmers, the rural population, and other decisionmakers are an MFA indicator: are they focused on high production or on producing wider societal benefits?

Wilson defines a spectrum of MFA from weak through moderate to strong. He intentionally uses these value-laden terms because he believes strong MFA is “morally best,” the ideal toward which societies need to strive. Decisions pertaining to MFA are made at the farm level, but also on rural community, regional, national, and global scales.

Wilson frames the boundaries of this spectrum of MFA as “productivist” on the weak end and “nonproductivist” on the strong end. Productivist agriculture is organized for maximum production of high quantities of commodities. This level of MFA relies on global trade and high input use. It results in serious environmental impacts, and is supported at all the scales by attitudes, policies, and businesses.

The strong end of his MFA spectrum begins to merge into rural community activity beyond agriculture. Wilson characterizes this portion of the spectrum as focused on low-intensity farming, lower production, and more localized food distribution chains, with more diverse landscapes and more reliance on off-farm income. Strong MFA also tends to support rural community development and tourism based on diverse and pleasing landscapes with wetlands, animals, and other amenities. The nonproductivist concept is heavily influenced by the literature not just from the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand but also from other countries that have seen changes in some farming landscapes toward tourism and other nonfood and fiber production. As Wilson mentions, however, less food production in one area may necessitate more intense production elsewhere.

Strong MFA (multifunctional agriculture), I believe, must be understood as optimizing yields of high-quality food in ways that maintain highly functioning ecosystems along with socially just and economically viable human relations.

The book describes how a number of agricultural systems fit into the MFA framework, including industrial, organic, and subsistence farming; plantations in developing countries; and hobby farming. The reader should not make simple assumptions here. For example, Wilson notes that organic production may not be strong in all aspects of MFA when it produces for the global supply chain.

The strength of Wilson's work is that he elaborates a robust framework that can describe and explain pathways of transition in agriculture toward higher or lower levels of MFA. It applies to farming systems in developed and developing countries at the decision-making level of the farm and at other scales. His book extends the analysis to include more than simply the value of nonmarket public goods. For example, Wilson's framework accounts for the reality that a weakly multifunctional farm may have a few strongly multifunctional areas, such as wetlands tucked among the fields, that would seem monofunctional because high production of commodities is the goal to which all other ecological and social functions are subordinate. His framework also accounts for how farms and landscapes may move toward or away from strong MFA, depending on the pressures and opportunities offered by markets, policies, and attitudes.

As executive director of a nonprofit organization that works with farmers who practice sustainable agriculture here in the US Midwest, I have been involved with studies showing the benefits of MFA at the watershed scale. I've also seen firsthand how such a wider view of agriculture's potential is producing real results on working farms. Politicians in local areas are beginning to recognize the benefits of multifunctional agriculture, and consumers are showing they want to buy food with certification from the Food Alliance, Fair Trade, and other similar certification systems, denoting that some dimensions of multifunctionality have been incorporated in the food's production.

The weakness I find in Wilson's MFA spectrum is that he conceptualizes strong MFA by proximity to the nonproductivist boundary. I think this sends the wrong signal to policymakers, citizens, researchers, food companies, and farmers alike. Wilson acknowledges that goals related to food security are vital. In his framework, however, strong MFA with respect to ecological sustainability equates to low productivity.

Growing empirical evidence suggests that we can achieve relatively high food production while mimicking natural ecosystems (Jackson and Jackson 2002). A preeminent group of scientists, after studying what it called “alternative agriculture,” found that “reduced use of these inputs [chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics] lowers production costs and lessens agriculture's potential for adverse environmental and health effects without necessarily decreasing—and in some cases increasing—per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems” (Committee on the Role of Alternative Farming Methods in Modern Production Agriculture, Board on Agriculture, National Research Council 1989). Jules Pretty, whom Wilson quotes extensively, describes systems around the world that jumped from subsistence farming to highly productive MFA systems (Pretty 2002). Wilson himself acknowledges that it could be possible for “all agriculture systems” to become strongly multifunctional at the global level. In April 2008, a group of 400 experts from around the world, known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology, concluded in a report that there must be a global drive toward more sustainable farming systems, if we are to feed people and protect the very resources that will ensure food security in the future A productive agriculture and a sustainable agriculture can be one and the same.

Strong MFA, I believe, must be understood as optimizing yields of high-quality food in ways that maintain highly functioning ecosystems along with socially just and economically viable human relations. In that sense, “strong” MFA may belong in the middle of Wilson's spectrum, with “moderate” MFA being close to the nonproductivist boundary. Quality of life and adequate food production now and in the future depend on our success at redesigning agriculture. A powerful and comprehensive analysis for understanding and directing change will speed that process.

References cited


Committee on the Role of Alternative Farming Methods in Modern Production Agriculture, Board on Agriculture, National Research Council 1989. Alternative Agriculture Washington (DC) National Academy Press. Google Scholar


D. Jackson and L. Jackson . 2002. The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems Washington (DC) Island Press. Google Scholar


J. N. Pretty 2002. AgriCulture: Reconnecting People, Land, and Nature London Earthscan. Google Scholar
George Boody "Multifunctional Agriculture: More Than Bread Alone," BioScience 58(8), 763-765, (1 September 2008).
Published: 1 September 2008

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