Agri-Environmentalism and Rural Change
The realization that modern, intensive agriculture could be environmentally damaging was slow to gain ground among policy elites in industrialized countries. Traditionally portrayed as environmental stewards engaged in the production of essential staples, farmers in most developed countries since the 1930s have received substantial levels of government support in order to achieve food security and public good policy goals. The conventional wisdom is that farmers as a group deserve state assistance, not merely because their incomes tend to be lower and more volatile than those of others in society, but also because, without them, many rural communities and environments would no longer be sustainable. During the 1970s and 1980s, mounting evidence that agricultural intensification and the production of food on an industrial scale was depleting biodiversity, eroding soils, and contaminating the wider environment brought about a profound questioning of the idea that the rural environment can safely be left to the care of farmers.
The result has been a rethinking of policy models and approaches and arguably one of the largest scale experiments in environmental regulation and incentivization ever attempted in places like the European Union (EU) and the United States. With this has come a substantial body of rural geographical research concerned with documenting the nature and extent of the environmental threat, contributing to debates concerning the public policy and regulatory implications and reflecting on the sociocultural–political repercussions of the associated shifts in public attitudes toward farmers and farming. 'Agri-environmentalism' is now an established feature of public policy discourse in most developed countries, indicative of a concern to ensure that farming practices are environmentally sustainable in a practical and largely policy driven sense. It also refers, however, to a larger and much more politically charged renegotiation of the relationship between farmers and the state in a period of policy change and market liberalization.
This article falls into three sections. The first section briefly reviews the nature of the environmental impact of modern agriculture and the different ways in which this has been reported, analyzed, and understood by geographers, followed by a section that describes the emergence and evolution of the agri environmental policies that have been put in place to manage the complex and spatially variable environmental problems brought about by agricultural changes. This section gives a flavor of the policy debates that continue to circulate within different policy jurisdictions about how best to reconcile agricultural restructuring with environmental sustainability. The final section places these agri environmental concerns in a broader international context by assessing the challenge to rural environmental sustainability of agricultural market liberalization under the auspices of the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations on agriculture.