In spite of the best efforts of sustainable agriculture, environmental, and healthy food advocates over the past two years to reform U.S. farm policy, the bill recently passed by Congress lacks fundamental reform. Although the bill includes some environmental and healthy food system improvements over existing legislation, the system of commodity subsidies remains intact, and it is these subsidies, together with biofuels subsidies and mandates embodied in the farm bill and energy legislation, that drive the basic structure of the U.S. farm and food system.

To break the farm-block stranglehold on farm and food policy the next time around, we need a need a new vision of agriculture: one that recognizes that farmers produce more than just food, feed, fuel, and fiber. We also count on farmers to take care of vast swaths of critically important land. What we need, in short, is a “multifunctionality” vision of agriculture.

Most reform proposals leading up to Congressional farm bill debate throughout 2007 were based on either a market-oriented global competitiveness vision or a sustainable agriculture vision of American agriculture. These are competing visions, but groups representing both visions were calling for drastic curtailment — or in some cases, virtual elimination — of the commodity subsidy programs. They failed, of course.

The Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports farm bill accomplishments in a number of areas, including enhanced funding for conservation, technical and financial assistance for farmers wanting to convert to organic agriculture methods, and increased funding for promotion of farmers markets and local food enterprises.

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But the Congressional farm block prevailed in protecting agribusiness and large-farm interests by retaining the commodity subsidy system. The final bill did not even include much in the way of stronger caps on payments to large farmers and landowners. Moreover, Congress added a permanent disaster program that will further encourage crop systems that are ecologically inappropriate to some regions.

In contrast to the U.S., the European Union has succeeded in carrying out some fundamental reforms in its Common Agricultural Policy over the last decade. Reforms include the new, single-farm payment system, accompanied by stronger environmental cross-compliance measures, adopted following the comprehensive midterm review of the CAP in 2003. The E.U. still has a long way to go in enacting needed reforms, but reforms it has made are due in no small part to a new E.U. consensus reached by the late-1990s that policies should be based on a multifunctionality vision of agriculture. Many elements of the U.S. sustainable agriculture vision constitute, essentially, a multifunctionality perspective, but that perspective has yet to be adopted by the broad American body politic and political activists.

The multifunctionality vision is gaining wider acceptance beyond the E.U. The recently released “Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)” calls for a multifunctionality approach to hunger, poverty, environmental, and equity problems throughout the world. The IAASTD was a global, intergovernmental initiative launched in 2007, under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank, and WHO. The process involved 900 participants from 110 countries.

The IAASTD report describes what it means by multifunctionality:

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Multifunctionality is used solely to express the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s different roles and functions. The concept of multifunctionality recognizes agriculture as a multi-output activity producing not only commodities (food, feed, fibers, agrofuels, medicinal products and ornamentals), but also non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages.

The working definition proposed by OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], which is used by the IAASTD, associates multifunctionality with particular characteristics of the agricultural production process and its outputs: (i) multiple commodity and non-commodity outputs are jointly produced by agriculture; and (ii) some of the non-commodity outputs may exhibit the characteristics of externalities or public goods, such that markets function poorly or are non-existent.

The Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report states that the challenges for agricultural knowledge, science, and technology (AKST) posed by multifunctional agriculture include:

  • How to improve social welfare and personal livelihoods in the rural sector and enhance multiplier effects of agriculture
  • How to empower marginalized stakeholders to sustain the diversity of agriculture and food systems, including their cultural dimensions
  • How to provide safe water, maintain biodiversity, sustain the natural resource base and minimize the adverse impacts of agricultural activities on people and the environment
  • How to maintain and enhance environmental and cultural services while increasing sustainable productivity and diversity of food, fiber, and biofuel production
  • How to manage effectively the collaborative generation of knowledge among increasingly heterogeneous contributors and the flow of information among diverse public and private AKST organizational arrangements
  • How to link the outputs from marginalized, rain-fed land into local, national, and global markets

As noted in the IAASTD report, basing agricultural policy on the multifunctionality concept has been controversial. U.S. policy makers and economists often have charged that the E.U.’s multifunctionality language is simply protectionism in disguise. But this ignores the fact that many European policy economists have given very careful attention to reconciliation of trade policies and domestic agricultural policies based on multifunctionality (for example, see references in Dobbs and Pretty). Basing agricultural policy on a multifunctionality vision does not imply abandonment of comparative advantage principles or all-out protectionism. It does imply, however, that a narrow comparative advantage, economic competitiveness vision will not completely drive policy. It implies that the full range of agriculture’s multiple functions will be considered in shaping policies.

Unfortunately, though representatives of the U.S. participated in the IAASTD, the U.S. government (along with the governments of Australia and Canada) did not fully approve the Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report. Could that reflect the fact that the global competitiveness vision still implicitly dominates U.S. agricultural and trade policy thinking?

Between now and time for debate on the next U.S. farm bill, we need to develop a multifunctionality policy consensus, like that reflected in E.U. agricultural policies and the IAASTD report. Until the broad public consistently demands more than “commodities” from agriculture, we will continue to have farm bills that make only modest environmental and healthy food improvements, while maintaining status quo policies that prop up industrial agriculture!