- The multifunctional characteristics of agriculture
|Last update: November 25, 2010 03:53:01 PM|
The multifunctional characteristics of agriculture
Dr P G Marais
The principal function of agriculture is the provision of food security, defined as "the access for all people at all times to enough food for active and healthy lives." Clearly permanent availability, reliability of supply, relative autonomy, as well as population access and equity are all critical issues.
Agriculture presents major challenges to sustainable development, including some of the most important, namely:
- Pollution, contributions to the greenhouse effect, depletion of water resources, erosion and degradation of soils and reduced biodiversity
- Damage to ecologically fragile areas, and in some cases destruction of entire ecosystems, as a result of more intensive and extensive agriculture caused by economic development and demographic growth, resulting in higher food requirements
- Pressures on fragile rural livelihoods, with people unable to live off their land, migrating to other regions at the risk of increasing competition for land, increasing pressure on natural resources, causing land-tenure conflicts, contributing in turn to problems of urbanisation, resulting in reduced area for agricultural production to feed more people,
From this the multifunctional characteristic of agriculture (MFCA) evolved, defined as the entire range of associated environmental, economic and social functions of agriculture. The concept encompasses all the multiple goods and services generated by agriculture and related land-use, Analysis contributes to understanding the combination of potential synergies and trade-offs necessary to achieve sustainability in agriculture and rural development.
In regions with poor and low-potential agriculture, where it is generally difficult to ensure the renewal of natural resources and the sustainability of agricultural ecosystems, but where subsistence agriculture is likely to remain a major activity, the advantages of a combination of options are:
- Strengthening food security for local people through sustainable local production and a diversified rural economy
- Diversifying the means of subsistence for rural populations with different products and resources
- Contributing to the development of the local economy through greater flexibility and increased opportunity
- Improving natural resource renewal and limiting threats to the environment by maintaining natural capital for future use
- Easing social conflicts resulting from competition in sharing scarce resources
- Improving resilience of ecological and economic systems through use of different aspects of agriculture and land
- Contributing to poverty alleviation and providing a stronger local economy.
Key functions of agriculture
The main functions to which agriculture contributes are as follows:
- food security
- environmental functions, including the enhancement of positive effects and mitigation of negative ones
- economic functions, including primary production (of food and other goods) and products and services relating to farm enterprise capacity, multiple activities with wider economic effects as well as their direct and induced effects on economic systems
- social functions, including the viability of rural communities and livelihoods, culture and cultural values.
The combined effects of these four functions contribute in achieving rural development.
- Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences to lead active and healthy lives. There is an interrelationship between food security and a variety of factors, including sustainable management of natural resources (agriculture, fisheries), increased production, policies at different levels, maintenance of biodiversity, protection of the environment, investment, peace and stability.
- Political support for achieving food security is high.
Food security and the environment
- In many parts of the world, unsustainable and otherwise inadequate policies and programmes, inappropriate technologies, insufficient rural infrastructure and institutions, as well as pests and diseases, lead to inefficiency and wastage of natural and human resources, inputs and products. These negative effects on the environment pose a threat to long-term food security.
Food security and economic and social development
- The economic and social development of the rural sector is a key requisite for the achievement of food security for all. Poverty, hunger and malnutrition are some of the principal causes of increasing migration from rural to urban areas. Poverty eradication is essential to broaden access to food. The rural areas are generally poorly equipped in terms of technical and financial resources and educational infrastructure. In these areas, lack of income opportunities, failure to harvest crops, inadequate maintenance of production systems, poor distribution networks, limited access to public services and the substandard quality of such services are fundamental aspects that need to be considered with regard to rural food security.
- Expanding production in low-income food-deficit regions is frequently one of the primary means of increasing the availability of food and income for people living in poverty. This needs to be complemented by generation of employment and income which will increase effective demand in these areas, in turn stimulating production, economic diversification and rural development and therefore long-term food security.
Food security and trade
- Trade generates effective utilisation of resources and stimulates economic growth, which is critical to improving food security. Trade allows food consumption to exceed food production, helps to reduce fluctuations in production and consumption and relieves part of the burden of stock holding. It has a major bearing on access to food through its positive effect on economic growth, income and employment. Appropriate domestic economic and social policies will ensure that all, including the poor, will receive greater benefit from economic growth. Appropriate trade policies complement such policies and help to attain the objectives of sustainable growth and food security for all.
- Unless provincial/national governments and the international community address the multivariate causes of food insecurity, the number of hungry and malnourished people in developing regions will remain very high and sustainable food security will not be achieved. The international community has a key role in supporting the adoption of appropriate provincial/national policies and, where necessary and appropriate, providing technical and financial assistance to aid developing regions in improving food security.
Food security and MFCA
- Clearly, attaining food security is a complex task, which requires an enabling environment and policies promoting peace, as well as social, political and economic stability and equity. The combination of economic functions (favourable conditions for credit, investment and trade) and social functions (attention to public services, human resources and equity) relating to agriculture can help to achieve this goal. The concept of MFCA may offer a useful perspective and instrument to specify options for decision makers to achieve food security.
- Agriculture and related land-use can have beneficial or harmful effects. Indeed, the impact of agricultural systems has become intimately linked to the normal functioning of most ecosystems. Agriculture can influence the quantity and quality of the water supply for industrial and urban use, through maintenance of water catchments, infiltration and a regular level of fluctuation in the water table. It can help to control erosion, and therefore leading to heavy runoff with negative downstream effects. When this occurs, the economic impact is indirect and spread over time.
- The direct environmental benefits of agriculture include: pollution reduction through management of soils and vegetation increases in biomass and nutrient fixation with mixed cropping, land-use and fertiliser application; and increasing ecosystem resilience by means of techniques that control erosion.
- Agriculture can also have negative effects on ecosystems and on the renewal of natural resources. Examples include agricultural practices with excessive use of chemical inputs, irrigation and mechanised tillage. In most cases these systems are highly specialised, using production systems with multiple functions but significant negative effects.
- Changes in the environment are of concern at many levels. Particular attention has been focused on the dangers of the reduction of biodiversity, which represents a definitive loss of genetic material, and on the level of emissions, which can contribute to global climate change.
- For the entire environmental function, however, the MFCA concept can guide the process of optimising linkages between agriculture and the biological and physical features of the natural environment. In order to stimulate investment and longer-term planning, farmers must be confident that they have adequate rights of ownership, managed access or other tenure arrangements. When rights of access to the resources are unclear, obsolete, or relegated by other forms of rights, or not honoured, the users are more likely to utilise resources for their own immediate interest. The resources may not be managed sustainably, not renewed and ultimately become depleted.
- The main function of agriculture is the physical production of crops. These are primarily for human consumption (food) or trade (as commodities). Primary production also yields feed and fodder for animal consumption, raw materials destined for energy, and other products for clothing, housing or other uses.
- Agriculture remains a principal force in sustaining the operation and growth of the entire economy. Investment or some new activity, linked, for example, to production diversification or to an increased level of activity, can generate economic effects both upstream and downstream of agriculture and related land-use. On the demand side, agriculture requires inputs in the form of labour, various services and financial capital. As outputs, agriculture supplies products and services involving processing, transportation, marketing and distribution. There are multiple linkages to other sectors.
- Assessment of the benefits and impact of agriculture goes well beyond the primary production function. Valuation of various functions includes projections of potential short, mid and long-term benefits. The level of institutional development is crucial, as are the potentials of the sustainable natural resource base for goods and services.
- The social functions of agriculture include concerns important to all nations, from the most industrialised to the least developed. The MFCA recognises negative effects of prevailing agricultural practices once these are discovered and enables stakeholders to seek measures that not only counter or mitigate these, but also make use of possibilities for synergy. The immediate objectives are to increase the viability of rural areas and their communities and sustain the cultural values relating to agriculture for both urban and rural societies. However, these objectives can be accomplished in several ways and with different outcomes.
- Rural areas are associated with notions of culture, tradition, and identity. These notions are perceived as a positive, indeed an essential, good. However, agrarian communities have undergone dramatic transformations. For example, migration of the workforce to cities and linkages to these centres have a major impact on rural incomes and resources. In the most marginal agricultural zones, the resident populations have become dependent on a permanent exchange with and remittances from the exterior. The enduring and emerging dynamics between rural and urban areas can be taken into account in analyses based on the MFCA concept.
- The MFCA concept has the advantage of not focusing strictly on production as the single, or even necessarily the most important, agricultural function for contemporary rural societies. The approach extends to a range of activities in relation to the land and the resource base, including care taking of vital natural features, sustaining secondary and tertiary activities relating to agriculture and land, maintenance of the historical and cultural heritage, recreation and migration of retired workers back to the rural areas. The integrity of local and national cultures is often rooted in systems of belief and understanding that have emerged gradually in rural areas. Social viability therefore does not depend on the "food function" alone.
- Another entire range of issues is associated with questions regarding the general well being of rural populations. Descriptions at multiple scales and levels can capture the considerable local variations in social conditions, as well as specifying vital linkages to subregional and other levels. In documenting experience, assessment can extend to the importance of questions relating to gender, age, stratification, social categories, equity, differential access to resources and relative opportunity. The results of the analysis can be used to evaluate and influence the direction of future interventions regarding agriculture, taking into account the need to maintain the basic services and economic opportunities needed to keep rural areas attractive to community members. These include schools, dispensaries and other health services, security, communication, roads and transport.
- The availability of information and education can also fall under the social function, though these issues cut across the spectrum of functions. Of particular importance is the valuation of local knowledge and the forging of relations between local communities and external sources of expertise, information and advice. The effectiveness of policies on public information depends on the existence of an expression of the collective will of local people to ensure that their society can continue living in a sustainable manner. This will may be explicit if articulated by the local leadership or implicit when the growth and development of local activities create a favourable spirit among the community members.
- Finally, multiple stakeholders-at different levels and scales-are the key to the future of agriculture. Stakeholder preferences and actions regarding goods and services are expressed directly through markets, and indirectly through public institutions (local, state or other mediators). They are central to issues of effective leadership, decision-making and empowerment at the local level and at subregional and provincial levels. At the local level, the stakeholders are the farmers and other groups directly engaged in production, as well as groups in management. Those active in non-agricultural rural services such as banking and administration are also involved.
A conceptual framework
Application of the concept of MFCA depends on geography and the prevailing institutional conditions. The framework must bring out the major differences in the way in which each society uses the multifunctional characteristics of agriculture. First, there is the capacity of cultivated ecosystems and rural systems (rural economy and societies) to encompass a large number of functions. The multifunctional character is considered in relation to the productive potential of natural resources (the "natural capital") in the area under consideration. The degree of resilience or fragility is examined in relation to the systems of use and management of these natural resources.
The organisational and institutional capacities to manage ecosystems and resources in each society (the "social capital") is also fundamental, as is a degree of long-term social stability. Manifestation of strengths and weaknesses in natural or social, capital can result in the degradation of ecology and fragmentation of society, or conversely to improvement and sustainability.
Building the capacity of institutions in order to manage viable levels of goods and services while still maintaining environmental sustainability is a major challenge in all societies. A general relationship is postulated between the development of ,if institutional capacity and the potential contribution that the multiple functions of agriculture and land-use can make to sustainable development.
Regions with low natural resource potential and low institutional development
In biophysical terms, these are generally arid, mountainous or other regions in which production potential is limited. These areas are often far removed from markets because of physical distance and limited infrastructure. Transport and information problems reduce producer familiarity with the state of the market, increase trade costs and often give buyers of agricultural products a local monopoly to the disadvantage of producers. The market is therefore very imperfect in institutional terms. The local institutions for managing mutual goods or the public interest can be inappropriate for dealing with the situation. Decline in incomes, deterioration in the overall economic climate and seasonal migration of the men often cause these institutions to become dormant. In some cases, constraints are compounded by land tenure laws bestowing exclusive rights on the State to manage resources throughout the national territory, in this way depriving local communities of this role. These regions are therefore often in ecological, economic and social crises.
In some cases, development projects with external support have managed to recreate a positive dynamic for agricultural production, economic growth and institutional development by systematically utilising the multifunctional capacities of agriculture. The relative isolation and general poverty of the people stimulates the use of some multifunctional forms of land-use as one of the bases for starting a process of local rural development and economic accumulation. But the slow pace of capital accumulation makes the mobilisation of external resources necessary. Strengthening the institutional basis will be required in order to achieve sustainability and rural development.
Regions with low natural resource potential and high institutional development
In general, these regions were settled long ago and now have high population densities and have had high levels of institutional development. Prolonged settlement has enabled the societies to progressively develop production techniques to resolve the problems created by the severe limitations and constraints of their environment. High population density has also encouraged the emergence of a local and subregional market economy, particularly on the outskirts of towns.
The environmental constraints are such that the agricultural systems constantly run the risk of becoming unsustainable. Small land-holdings, fragmentation of tenure and intensive land-use can lead to nutrient depletion and soil erosion. The high cost of restoring degraded lands can result in small-farmers leaving the land. Ecological and economic constraints, however, can also compel farmers to utilise the multifunctional character of agriculture and land by diversifying production, maintaining ecological sustainability through appropriate techniques, seeking new market opportunities, and multiplying small-scale service activities in relation to agriculture. The rural economy can then become progressively connected to external markets.
The way forward
The MFCA concept adds to our understanding of the factors crucial to achieving greater sustainability in agriculture. Appreciation of the interrelations between and impact of different functions builds on our understanding of the complexity and scope of agricultural and land-use systems and helps to identify potential synergies and trade-offs. The conceptual framework proposed incorporates the dimensions of space, scale and time, different geographical conditions and levels of institutional development, as well as trends in market development.
The stocktaking process on achievements indicated that there are six key requirements for progress:
- Active participation and leadership by rural communities is fundamental to success in reaching sustainability for agriculture and rural development.
- The progressive emergence of local and national institutions that mobilise farmers associations, community groups, NGOs, the private sector and government agencies is a promising means of collectively addressing concerns about agriculture and land-use.
- An enabling national policy environment is necessary, though making policy effective and operational remains a major challenge under diverse social and economic contexts.
- Efficient, transparent flow of information between all levels, from the individual, rural land-user to international bodies and institutions, are essential in order to promote participation and ownership in innovation.
- The wide availability of the results of applied research on locally relevant, adaptable techniques . for agriculture and natural resource use is vital for achieving sustainability in agriculture and land-use.
- changes in economic instruments, including rural credit and savings institutions, tools for valuation of the range of functions of agriculture, and longer-term assessment of and perspectives on investment, are needed to develop better decision-making and management processes.
Given these requirements, the ability to distinguish the functions of agriculture in precise contexts offers insights into possible directions for future policy and activities. Contribution to the overall objective of sustainable development includes improving food security and strengthening the synergies between the environmental, economic and social functions of agriculture and related land-use. National priorities and processes for establishing these priorities will vary, and choices between options will depend on public decision-making processes. National bodies of governance and management will continue to bear the primary responsibility for arriving at and executing such decisions.
Residents of rural communities, in particular farmers, continue to playa central role as stewards of agricultural land and the environment. An appreciation of their vital contribution has progressively permeated government and private agencies in urbanised, industrialised and industrialising societies where decision makers are increasingly divorced from direct experience with the land. There is growing recognition of the importance of decentralised governance, decision-making and empowerment. Building on the scope for multiple functions in rural areas may be a way of offering greater opportunity and confronting problems of equity-in relation to gender, age and social status, for example-and poverty. Choices between options would depend on an overall assessment of the likely consequences for the local environment and society. However, recognising the role of rural actors is neither a panacea for contemporary challenges to agriculture and land-use, nor an alternative to the critical roles played by other actors.
The search for responses to these challenges is complex. Sustainability is contingent on local perceptions of livelihood security, strategies for risk minimisation and prudent assessment of available choices. There are high social and long-term economic costs for failing to confront some of the crucial problems facing rural areas, such as underemployment of young people and the outward migration of young women and children to marginal, vulnerable service occupations.
Perceptions of lack of security sometimes orient farmers towards unsustainable practices to maximise immediate benefit.
Possibly the greatest challenge to the development of sustainable agriculture and related land-use is to reconcile the primary objective of achieving food security with the environmental objectives. Appreciation of the essential role of larger ecosystems-ecoregions-makes sustainability clearly a regional issue.
This examination of the strategic, indeed essential, importance of the multiple functions of agriculture and related land-use brings us back to basic issues of governance and participation. Ultimate responsibility to ensure the viability of agricultural systems and the environment remain in the public arena, and there must be effective mechanisms to coordinate action and to make decisions, collaborating with other actors at the local level and from civil society. Clearly, precise roles will have to evolve and be subject to periodic negotiation, with close consultation and collaboration between stakeholders and, most notably, members of rural communities.