Jan 02 2012

Multi-functionality of Agriculture

Readers may recall the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and the need to place ‘production issues’ in perspective. Agriculture was not about producing more and more crops alone – it was, first and foremost, about farmers and their livelihood systems, and their intimate connection with land.

Typically, a farm family engages itself in multi-cropping, rearing livestock, primary processing and value addition at the farm level, and in many cases also supports the local handicrafts and services sector. Farmers also make the best possible use of farm residues, and there is practically nothing that does not get recycled.

However, these attributes of the farming system are sometimes missed out in the conventional assessment of the farmer’s contribution to the larger systems of economy and ecology within which the farmers operate.

However, of late, it has become quite fashionable in the OECD world, and especially in Europe to talk of the multi-functionality of agriculture. However, the way the term is interpreted by WTO and IAASTD is different. According to the IASTD, multi-functionality is used solely to express the ‘inescapable connectedness of the different roles of agriculture to each other’. As is commonly understood, there can be nolivestock rearing and backyard poultry independent of some ‘farming system’, and also that, if a farm does not have its own contingent of cattle, poultry and fish pond, the livelihood potential would be much below par. However, the IAASTD definition goes beyond this. It recognizes agriculture as a multi-output activity, producing not only commodities (food, feed, fiber, agro fuels, medicinal products and ornamentals) but also non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages. Thus the preservation of green cover and the possible sequestration of carbon credits from agriculture open up new vistas for assessing the true worth of agriculture.

The real dilemma lies in making a realistic assessment of the non-commodity outputs (environment, landscapes, bird species, including migratory birds) which may exhibit characteristics of externalities or public goods, but the markets for these are not properly defined. True, some beginning has been made with reference to ‘sequestration’ of carbon, but we are still a long way from making an assessment of how to value the ‘landscape’. Also, these externalities cannot be produced in isolation, but only as an adjunct to the multiple commodity production system.

In the context of the WTO, the issue relates to the effect of ‘trade distorting subsidies’ on the ‘related and interconnected aspects of a multi- functional agriculture’. While it is known that subsidies to the dairy farmers in Europe and US depresses the domestic price of milk and milk products for the milk producers of the developing countries, it is difficult to assess the impact that non-rearing of cattle as an adjunct to the family farm will have on the ‘multi-functionality ‘of agriculture in larger parts of Asia and Africa. At a more fundamental level, the question is – should the term for the milk and meat products of Europe and US be called the dairy farm sector, or the dairy industry – for it is more in the nature of an industrial production process, rather than an agricultural operation. Proponents argue that the current patterns of agricultural subsidies, international trade and the related policy frameworks do not facilitate a transition towards an equitable agriculture and food trade relations or sustainable food and farming systems.

On the contrary, these have given rise to perverse impacts on natural resources and agro ecologies, as well as on human health and nutrition. Raj Patel’s book “Stuffed and Starved” which was reviewed by this column, subscribes to this view. They suggest that while knowledge, information and technologies of agriculture should have free circulation, agriculture production should be rooted in the local context and respond to the multiple needs of the community, and contribute those resources to the community which have traditionally beenassociated with agriculture. However, the other view, which also has a fair number of proponents, including those from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) affiliated International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) argues that any attempt to remedy these outcomes by means of trade related instruments will weaken the efficiency of agricultural trade and lead to further distortions in the market. They argue that the number of rural households which do not depend on any kind of agricultural activity is rising, and therefore the ‘multi-functionality’ has little meaning, especially for the poorest and most deprived sections, which do not have access to any land, including homestead land.

There is some empirical truth in this fact as well, for the numbers of landless labour in India (who do not have any rights over land) are more than the total number of marginal and small farmers. Thus, multi-functionality has no meaning for them, or the large numbers of the urban poor, whose primary concern is the access to affordable nutrition, rather than a return to the highly romanticized versions of bucolic climes!

AgriMatters would go with the proponents, because there are ways in which multi-functionality can be integrated into the lives of almost everyone who lives in the countryside. As governments and communities across the world recognize the right to

shelter, and the provision of a small plot for homestead land is getting the status of a Fundamental Right, it would be possible for landless workers to grow timber, vegetable, fruits and nuts – both for self consumption, and the market, as also keep engaged in backyard poultry, duckery and a few goats and/or milch cattle. In other words, agriculture is so integral to the farmers and farm workers that it cannot be subject to decisions based on the manipulation /calibration of statistical tables and projected scenarios.