Last update: November 25, 2010 03:53:01 PM E-mail Print


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:

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:

Key functions of agriculture

The main functions to which agriculture contributes are as follows:

The combined effects of these four functions contribute in achieving rural development.

Food security

Food security and the environment

Food security and economic and social development

Food security and trade

Food security and MFCA

Environmental function

Economic function

Social function

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:

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.