Can farmers inform policy about multifunctional agriculture?

By Leonardo van den Berg (MSc. student International Development Studies, Wageningen University) & Klarien Klingen (graduate International Land and Water Management, Wageningen University).

On the 8th of October we participated in the mini-conference about multifunctional agriculture organized by the Rural Sociology Group. We would like to share some thoughts about the conference and relate them to our thesis research experiences in Brazil.

Gianluca Brunori spoke of the benefits of multifunctionality in Tuscany. Here, farms are not merely production spaces rather:

  • Educational sites where children learn about biodiversity and breeds of animals.
  • Sites where farmers are community leaders and negotiate with public institutions.
  • Sites where food quality is negotiated with consumers and subsequently created. This not only entails consumers’ feedback on wine but also farmers educating consumers on what other parts of a cow are edible.

These thoughts turn past and present public concerns of educating farmers upside down and coincide with our thesis experiences in Brazil, where we studied a movement of innovative peasants. Here, farmers refused to be assigned a role as a poor class and instead re-established their role as experts over production, consumption and the environment. Their knowledge, farming systems, and achievements surprised social and natural scientists.

Roberta Sonnino and Katrina Rønningen focused on state policies. Sonnino criticised the little support UK policy grants to multifunctional agriculture. She argues that the UK equates best value with low costs. The few developments in multifunctional agriculture have occurred despite rather than thanks of state action. An exception is the Scottish case where an increase in organic and locally produced school meals gained €150.000 of regional revenues. Rønningen showed us another picture: in Norway multifunctionality has been embedded in society for a long time. She says it started with market demand and that it is now supported by policy: the government aims at having 20% of the food locally produced by the year 2020. Farming as a profession is highly appreciated by the public: farmers are seen as managers of cultural heritage and as producers of healthy food.

Two things struck us about these two cases. First, the UK case shows how difficult it is to penetrate the neo-liberal armour that defines not only political but also much of our own rationality. Policies are often perceived as an obstacle rather than as enabling factors. It was this hostile context in which Brazilian peasants operated. Through diversification, agroecology, and community forms of exchange these peasants have increased their autonomy enabling them to pursue their own values. Second, the case of Norway gives us a taste of the role public policies could play in the valorisation of farmers as (re)producers of healthy food, nature, landscape, biodiversity, and public health. That most governments are lacking this is no secret, even according to a market oriented, middle size farmer in our research area:

I could fence a water source, buy some wire and provide some poles. If it were more, how do you say; all this imprisonment of all that is commerce, if it were more humane, looked more at the human side, I think there would be more left and all of society would gain from this (interview November 2009).

In short: we would argue that that the lessons from the third world should not be underestimated. Our experience learns that some of these cases may be running well ahead of theory and policy practice.

4 thoughts on “Can farmers inform policy about multifunctional agriculture?

  1. Pingback: Terugblik kenniskringbijeenkomst: studenten aan het woord « Dynamiek en Robuustheid van Multifunctionele Landbouw

  2. Greetings,
    I’m a student in agronomy, specialising me in Farming Systems and Rural Development, in France. I’m currently doing an internship in Mexico with a teacher-researcher who studied and was graduated in Wageningen – Peter Gerritsen. And that’s the reason why I’m writing youi today: my study deals with farming systems and multifunctionality, in three villages in western Mexico. I would like to know if you would agree to share your study with me, and help me to get a better understanding on how such a European concept can be used to understand the reality of others farmers’ reality – in the so-called “developing” countries.
    Let me at least tell you that you had a great project!

    All the best to you, and thank you as well,

  3. Dear Valentine,

    I am most willing to share our project with you, but you have to be a bit more specific of what you want to share. As our project on Dynamics and Robustness of Multifunctional Agriculture focusses on the Netherlands and is funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, the project proposal and results are in Dutch. Documents can be downloaded from the weblog we created for that project: In the past we have also carried out two international projects on multifunctional agriculture (see and Results of these projects have also been published in special issues of the International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology (Vol 7, Issue 4/5) and the Journal of Environmental Management (Vol. 90 Supplement 2).

    Kind regards,
    Han Wiskerke

  4. Thank you Han for your answer and time,

    My answer is late. I went to see what the links you gave me contained, though, and some helped me! Unfortunately, Dutch reading is just like Chinese to me. So I’ll concentrate myself on the other projects.
    Just to be more precise: my study consisted in doing interviews with local farmers to be able to describe their farming systems, and to evaluate their degree of multifunctionality. But I found some difficulties to exploit properly my datas, since MF is principaly a European term, and concept, linked to Europe’s realities. Your project interested me, because you applied this concept to the Brazilian realities, as I have to do with Mexican ones. Thus, I just desired to read your results and analysis, to maybe reach another perception and see how I could probably better use my own results.
    Well, what you sent me was useful, thank you again!


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