The Multifunctional Attributes of Northeastern Agriculture: A Research Agenda

Article excerpt

In the United States' Northeastern region, there is an increasing interest in the public benefits from agriculture. These benefits are frequently referred to as multifunctional attributes. The policy challenge is to find an effective way to reflect these public demands so that multifunctional agriculture can be profitable. There is a significant research agenda that accompanies this challenge. Research topics include assessing and understanding consumer demand for multifuntional attributes, estimating the long-run returns to those production systems which supply these attributes, and designing and evaluating institutional arrangements to supply them.

Key Words: farmland protection, land use policy, multifunctional agriculture

As the Northeastern region of the United States becomes increasingly urban, there is an attendant interest in the beneficial attributes associated with agricultural landscapes. Agricultural enterprises can offer public benefits such as the provision of improved water quality, wildlife habitat, landscape amenities, flood control, nutrient recycling, and carbon sinks. Sometimes the definition of agro-benefits is stretched beyond public goods to include the production of wind energy, water harvesting, or food security (Aldington, 1998; Dobbs and Pretty, 2001 ; Harwood, 2001 ; Josling, 2002). Agriculture can also provide opportunities for hunting, agro-tourism, and agro-entertainment, as well as being associated with regional identity, heritage values, and rural vitality and ambience.

The European term for these relationships is "multifunctional agriculture." While not precisely defined, the term is used to contrast these-mostly nonmarket-benefits from agriculture with the market benefits from the provision of raw materials for the food and fiber industry (Josling, 2002).

The European multifunctional paradigm challenges the market-oriented paradigm with respect to the role of agriculture in the modern economy (Josling, 2002). Indeed, multifunctionality is sometimes viewed as a foundation for the "European model of agriculture" (Potter and Burney, 2002). This European concept of agriculture-which, of course, is not held by everyone in Europe-draws its lessons from a more holistic view of systems and sustainability (Josling, 2002). Supporters of multifunctional agriculture argue that such an agriculture "is rich in diversity and traditions, intent on preserving the countryside, a living rural world that offers rural employment" (Barthelemy, 2001).

In Europe, agricultural policy frequently garners more public support when it is tied to broad social objectives rather than only production objectives. Furthermore, because the market commodities will not reward farmers for the production of most multifunctional attributes, European supporters of multifunctional agriculture advocate a public role for incentives. This support translates into agriculture policies which provide assistance to farmers for the provision of multifunctional attributes (Potter, 1998). An example is public compensation of farmers for the loss of market revenues because the farmers provided more wildlife habitat (Dobbs and Pretty, 2001; Libby, 2002; Potter, 1998).

There are also some markets which do reflect these public preferences. For example, some Europeans have demonstrated that they are willing to pay for food attributes such as "sustainably grown" (Moon et al., 2002), or such as having a food with a regional identity (e.g., regional cheese).

The Northeastern region of the United States has shown an increased interest in multifunctional attributes from agriculture. This interest is predictable. As incomes rise, multifunctional attributes are increasingly valued; i.e., the income elasticity for multifunctional attributes is higher than that of traditional food and fiber. Furthermore, the more populated regions of the country are most concerned with protecting mutifunctional rural amenity attributes (Hellerstein et al. …


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