Agriculture produces more than just food and commodities. Since agriculture and forestry use more than 60% of the Earth’s land surface, these economic sectors are crucial to the functioning of our ecosystems. In 2009, a group of 29 scientists published a groundbreaking article in the journal Nature titled “A safe operating space for humanity” that was updated in 2015. The article tries to define the planetary boundaries for nine critical biophysical systems of the earth. According to the scientists, if humanity exceeds these safe thresholds, there will be a threat of abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Just how much exactly the Earth system can endure before it collapses can be extensively discussed. However, the scientists argue that the safe operating space for four of the nine systems has already been clearly exceeded, namely in the area of climate change, land-system change, human interference with the biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) and, in particular, the loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinctions). The way we farm and produce our food is the decisive factor for these four boundaries as well as the rest of the nine crucial systems.

The IAASTD underlines the enormous environmental responsibility of agriculture reflecting the fact that over the past 50 years, we have been one-sidedly fixated with the aim of increasing efficiency and productivity. By doing so, we have lost sight of the fact that agricultural overproduction is seriously threatening the basis of our food supplies. Agriculture is the source of livelihoods for one third of the world’s population and creates the social structure of rural areas. Not only are jobs closely linked to agriculture; the social cohesion of communities, their level of self-sufficiency and their resilience in times of crisis and disaster also depend largely on agriculture. After all, agriculture often produces a feeling of belonging and being at home. The beauty, peculiarity, flavor, history and tradition of regions and cultural landscapes form our identity and even our spiritual values. Hardly any civilization is conceivable without its particular farming and food culture. This enormous wealth of natural diversity, as well as land use and agriculture, contribute more than just food and agricultural products to the prosperity of society – or, in the case of negative changes, its impoverishment."Agriculture is multifunctional and goes far beyond food production. Other important functions for sustainable development include provision of nonfood products; provision of ecological services and environmental protection; advancement of livelihoods; economic development; creation of employment opportunities; food safety and nutritional quality; social stability; maintenance of culture and tradition and identity." (Global, p. 146)

Agriculture: vital but “valueless”

According to the authors of the IAASTD, over the past decades, the multifunctionality of agriculture has frequently been ignored and neglected by politics, economics and science, but also by agricultural companies and farmers themselves. The only factors that seemed to count in agriculture were yield, price and economic efficiency of products. Development and agricultural policies, as well as research and technology, were exclusively determined by these criteria. Beyond agricultural production, there are many vital services and goods that agriculture provides and maintains – or which agriculture neglects and destroys."Last but by no means least, agriculture ensures the delivery of a range of ecosystem services. In view of a globally sustainable form of development, the importance of this role may increase and become central for human survival on this planet." (Global, p. 15-16) These goods and services are of high value to communities, from the local level to the global community. Since they are not traded as a product, or at least only indirectly (e.g. tourism and health), the market does not determine a price defining their value. >>more

Facts & Figures

More than 3 billion people – almost half of the world’s population – live in rural areas. Roughly 2.5 billion of these rural people derive their livelihoods from agriculture. For many economies, especially those of developing countries, agriculture can be an important engine of economic growth.

By definition, the principle of multifunctionality in agriculture refers to agriculture that provides food products for consumers, livelihoods and incomes for producers, and a range of public and private goods and services for citizens and the environment, including ecosystem functions.

The EU failed to make the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) greener and the environmental reforms are so diluted they will not benefit biodiversity, a study published in the journal Science found. The authors recommend maximising the budget for agri-environment schemes: "The CAP should pay for ‘public goods’ associated with sustainable farming: thriving wildlife, beautiful landscapes, clean water, fertile soils, land that contributes to a stable climate, and diverse communities of wild insects to pollinate crops or regulate pest outbreaks”, according to lead author Lynn Dicks.

"We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognises that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity and recreation)."

Mechanisms to increase the accountability of powerful commercial actors in terms of development and sustainability goals have been weak. However in recent decades, public information campaigns, shareholder activism and more effective documentation and communication of bad practice have begun to exert some pressure for change.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Declaration of the Agricultural Ministers Committee 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.”


Civil Society


Videos: Multifunctionality

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Payment for Ecosystem Services explained

What can farmers do to protect the environment?


  • UNEP Agricultural OutputUNEP Agricultural Output
  • UNEP Multifunctional perspectiveUNEP Multifunctional perspective
  • UNEP Market AccessUNEP Market Access
  • UNEP Rainfall EconomyUNEP Rainfall Economy
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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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