Something that does not fetch a price is seen as not worth being produced or preserved. Things that are considered free are often recklessly used, and have little value attached to them. As these services are apparently free of charge, some of the most valuable services of agriculture are threatened by purely market-based logic of cost considerations. If the destruction of the environment, as well as of landscapes and rural communities, is made more difficult, and thus becomes a cost factor, companies often relocate production and jobs. Environmental and social dumping can therefore become a competitive advantage on the world market.

Public money for public goods

In recent times, however, science and politics have begun to recognize the multifunctionality of agriculture, especially from an ecological point of view. The EU Member States and other industrialized countries are starting to take the diverse role of agriculture more into account, particularly in areas such as law, the granting of subsidies and research. During the last EU agricultural reform, civil society organizations campaigned for a greener and fairer agricultural policy under the slogan “Public money for public goods”. The use of the term multifunctionality has however been controversial and contested within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Governments of the export-oriented countries in North and South America suspect it could lead to “market-distortion”. Companies and proponents of free-market theories largely oppose interventions on behalf of the protection of public goods and interests."Ecosystem services remain largely unpriced by the market. These services include climate regulation, water provision, waste treatment capacity, nutrient management, watershed functions and others. Payments for environmental services (PES) reward the ecosystem services provided by sustainable agriculture practices. PES is a policy approach that recognizes the multifunctionality of agriculture and creates mechanisms to value and pay for these benefits." (Global, p. 462)

In many developing countries, as well as in industrial countries, short-term economic constraints and long-term sustainability goals seem often incompatible with one another. This applies to particular businesses, individual households and communities, as well as to macroeconomic decisions. Hardship, the fear of losing one’s livelihood or pressure of competition frequently lead to ecologically and socially destructive decisions and behaviour."While many households are aware that their decision-making is short term, the severe cost of hunger makes long-term considerations of benefits of natural resources irrelevant to them. (Global, p. 36).The environmental and social services of agriculture could be promoted by giving them a market price and by paying for them. In addition, legal provisions and prohibitions at state and municipal level could help. The IAASTD gives examples for both options. They can perfectly complement each other but have to be assessed with regard to their effectiveness.

Multifunctionality as an opportunity

For highly specialized scientists, the concept of economic, ecological, social and cultural multifunctionality is an unusual challenge. Farmers and their communities could offer them guidance making use of their local and traditional knowledge, and their wealth of experience. For generations, it has been farmers’ core business to think and decide in a multifunctional way and to compare, in a pinch, also apples and oranges.
Human history contains many successful examples of how civilizations have sustainably shaped multifunctionality in exchange with nature – as well as examples of how they collapsed through failure to do so. Today, our globally interconnected society possesses a larger wealth of experience and knowledge than any other civilization before in order to meet the challenges ahead. However, it is also the first time that a real risk of global failure exists. To effectively face this risk, we must adapt our modes of behavior timely, diversely and simultaneously in as many places as possible. The multifunctionality of agriculture and food cannot be reduced to single aspects such as justice, hunger, health, resource conservation, or the protection of climate and species. Multifunctionality requires the high art of balancing all of these aspects in a constant exchange with all stakeholders."Successfully meeting development and sustainability goals and responding to new priorities and changing circumstances would require a fundamental shift in AKST, including science, technology, policies, institutions, capacity development and investment. Such a shift would recognize and give increased importance to the multifunctionality of agriculture, accounting for the complexity of agricultural systems within diverse social and ecological contexts. It would require new institutional and organizational arrangements to promote an integrated approach to the development and deployment of AKST. It would also recognize farming communities, farm households, and farmers as producers and managers of ecosystems. This shift may call for changing the incentive systems for all actors along the value chain to internalize as many externalities as possible. In terms of development and sustainability goals, these policies and institutional changes should be directed primarily at those who have been served least by previous AKST approaches, i.e., resource-poor farmers, women and ethnic minorities." (Synthesis, p. 4-5)


Civil Society


Videos: Multifunctionality

Click on the image to watch the video

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
Share |


Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
English versionDeutsche VersionDeutsche Version