Exploring multifunctional agriculture. A review of conceptual approaches and prospects for an integrative transitional framework

J Environ Manage. 2009 May;90 Suppl 2:S112-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.11.014. Epub 2009 Jan 3.


In the last decade the multifunctional agriculture (MFA) concept has emerged as a key notion in scientific and policy debates on the future of agriculture and rural development. Broadly speaking, MFA refers to the fact that agricultural activity beyond its role of producing food and fibre may also have several other functions such as renewable natural resources management, landscape and biodiversity conservation and contribution to the socio-economic viability of rural areas. The use of the concept can be traced to a number of wider societal and political transformation processes, which have influenced scientific and policy approaches in different ways amongst countries and disciplines. This paper critically discusses various existing research approaches to MFA, both from natural and social sciences. To this aim different strands of literature are classified according to their focus on specific governance mechanisms and levels of analysis into four main categories of research approaches (market regulation, land-use approaches, actor-oriented and public regulation approaches). For each category an overview of the state-of-the-art of research is given and an assessment is made of its strengths and weaknesses. The review demonstrates that the multifunctionality concept has attracted a wealth of scientific contributions, which have considerably improved our understanding of key aspects of MFA. At the same time approaches in the four categories have remained fragmented and each has limitations to understand MFA in all its complexity due to inherent constraints of applied conceptualizations and associated disciplinary backgrounds. To go beyond these limitations, we contend, new meta-level frameworks of analysis are to be developed that enable a more integrated approach. The paper concludes by presenting the main lines of an integrative, transitional framework for the study of MFA, which analyses multifunctional agriculture against the background of wider societal change processes towards sustainability and identifies a number of key elements and research challenges for this.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture / economics
  • Agriculture / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Agriculture / methods*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources* / economics
  • Conservation of Natural Resources* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Government Regulation
  • Research* / economics
  • Research* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Social Planning*
  • Socioeconomic Factors