1 Introduction

Throughout history agriculture has played a dominant role in the development of rural areas and in the shaping of rural landscapes. However, the role of agriculture for the future of rural areas is presently under discussion. Although agriculture remains still today for many rural areas an important economic activity and important factor for the creation of wealth and employment (both directly and indirectly), its dominant role in the rural economy is declining. At the same time, however, there are signs that society formulates some new expectations on the role of agriculture. Besides an economic contribution from food production, society increasingly expects agriculture to contribute to environmental and landscape services, water management and flood control, social care and cohesion and so on. The reason is, on the one hand, that agriculture continues to be the far most largest user of land (more than 50% of total EU area) and that rural areas are increasingly shifting from a productive area to what can be called a consumptive area (Potter and Tilzey, 2005*) that needs to deliver social, recreational or maintenance functions.

Rural areas are also subject of a rapid urbanisation process, especially in many European regions, like the fringe of Brussels (Figure 1*). Modern traffic and communication technologies have exported the urban way of life to the countryside putting pressure on rural traditions and way of life. It makes that the traditional harmony and responsiveness between agriculture and society has been broken and requires reinstatement (Delgado et al., 2003).

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Figure 1: Landscape in the fringe of Brussels with an agricultural character.

Multifunctionality is therefore argued to be the new unifying paradigm to bring post-modern agriculture in accordance with the new societal demands. It is emphasizing that in addition to producing food and fibre, agriculture also produces a wide range of non-commodity goods and services, shapes the environment, affects social and cultural systems and contributes to economic growth. The background on the debate on multifunctionality as a process of agricultural policy reform, started in the mid 1980s. At that time agricultural support and protection were at historically high levels and there was considerable tension in international agricultural trade (Cahill, 2001*). The term “multifunctional agriculture” emerged on the international stage as early as 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit. The emergence of the concept of multifunctionality responds to a wide range of concerns about significant, worldwide changes in agriculture and rural areas. The main aim of the notion of multifunctionality is to bring the above issues into a consistent framework.

The OECD Declaration of the Agricultural Ministers Committee (Maier and Shobayashi, 2001*) defines multifunctionality of agriculture as follows:

“Beyond its primary function of producing food and fibre, agricultural activity can also shape the landscape, provide environmental benefits such as land conservation, the sustainable management of renewable natural resources and the preservation of biodiversity, and contribute to the socio-economic viability of many rural areas. Agriculture is multifunctional when it has one or several functions in addition to its primary role of producing food and fibre.”

Although the concept is rather simple, its translation into policies remains however controversial (Dobbs and Pretty, 2004).

In this article we first try, based on literature review and own research, to give an overview of viewpoints and definitions of multifunctionality of agriculture as found in mainly economic and social sciences research. Next we review some analytical frameworks that can be used to study or analyse multifunctionality. This will be followed by a summary of existing evidence on the multifunctional role of agriculture. This overview article ends with some own thoughts on multifunctionality as a policy paradigm and on institutional arrangements and instruments that could be potentially used to push multifunctional agriculture further. In the conclusion we emphasize the need for further empirical research. Because of our own background, we focus in this overview mainly on the socio-economic studies on multifunctionality. We acknowledge that this may give a biased view as there exist also other schools on multifunctionality which focus more on multifunctionality as related to ecosystem services and landscape planning (see e.g. Helming and Wiggering, 2003). We consider therefore the main contribution of this article as complementing this literature which maybe more familiar to landscape researchers with a social sciences viewpoint.

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