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.