Contested Models of Agri-Environmental Governance

At the same time, agri environmental concerns have been swept into an increasingly international debate about the broad nature of agricultural sustainability and the role of farmers in delivering this. The restructuring and relocation of production that is likely within an increasingly globalized agro food system may prove as damaging to habitats and landscapes as earlier periods of agricultural change and there is a continuing debate about how far agri-environmentalism can be squared with the dismantling of state support and the establishment of market rule in agriculture. The convening of a new round of trade negotiations in 2000 under the auspices of the WTO's Doha trade round has raised the possibility of a much more substantial liberalization of agricultural markets than might previously have been considered possible and led to an international debate about the trade distorting effects of green payment schemes which operate by keeping farmers on the land. Agriculture had been brought into the international framework of multilateral trade negotiations for the first time under the Uruguay Round (1986–93). The resulting agriculture agreement committed signatories to a longterm agenda for agricultural trade liberalization that would entail the reform of domestic subsidies, improved market access, and the elimination of export subsidies. The successor Doha Round negotiations have yet to be concluded at the time of writing but it seems unlikely that the neoliberal project for agriculture has yet run its course.

The structural pressures on governments to further liberalize agricultural markets in any event remain immense. In particular, the globalization of food processing, distribution, and retailing that has come to define a global agro food system means that a new set of corporate interests committed to a neoliberal agenda is exerting growing influence over an international policy agenda centered on the rules and procedures of the WTO. Representatives of these interests have emerged as fierce critics of the traditional model of state assistance to farmers and see the further liberalization of agricultural markets, particularly in places like the EU, as essential if they are to control costs and compete for new markets.

Working separately and through country groupings such as the Cairns Group of agro exporters, they have succeeded in constructing a powerful agenda for reform that has as its informing vision a global agriculture governed by market rule.

All of which are raising questions about the types of agri environmental governance that would be feasible within the framework of such a policy settlement. The important debate about 'agricultural multifunctionality' that has dominated early stages of the Doha round is motivated by a concern that the public good attributes of farming may become harder to defend if the market protection currently extended to large numbers of marginal producers in some industrialized economies has to be dismantled. A number of different understandings of the relationship between agriculture, rural society, and the environment are in play here, giving rise to a continuing debate about the extent to which the protection and management of rural environments should continue to be a state directed project.

Those who promote a multifunctional view appear to be advocating a 'working lands' model of agricultural governance, which seeks to uphold a joint production view of the relationship between agriculture and the environment. This construction says that not only because of the practice of farming, principally through the activity of grazing animals, but also because of the different land management practices that are put in place in order to retain fertility and yields essentially underpins the landscapes and habitats valued by the public in places like the European Union. Unless governments continue to underwrite agricultural incomes through state support, large numbers of vulnerable farmers will leave the land, extensive tracts of countryside risk being abandoned, and biodiversity values will decline. It is a model that has the support of many EU member states, notably France, which insists that it is agricultural production which defines the very qualities (or multifunctions) of rural space that most European citizens are interested in and willing to pay for as both taxpayers and consumers of food. With its affirmation of the importance of sustaining the territorial association between farming, food, and environment, this is a stance that suggests that the farming population is itself a public good. Despite strong criticism from trading partners, it is an approach that continues to be strongly defended in international and domestic policy forums and is arguably the informing concept behind the recent introduction of the EU's single farm payment scheme, a system of income supports apparently designed to keep farmers in large numbers on the land.

On the other hand are those supporters of a decoupled public goods model of agrienvironmental governance who believe that the idea that governments need to support farming incomes and structures 'in order' to achieve environmental goals rather than doing so directly has far too many spillover effects into production and, thus, into international markets to be acceptable in the WTO. Their prescription is for payments to be linked as directly as possible to the environmental outputs that farmers (and other land managers) achieve. They tend to be more optimistic about the ability of farmers to adapt to world market conditions and point to the European experience of large numbers of family farmers managing to remain on the land through income diversification and off farm employment. This analysis and the policy prescriptions to which it gives rise enjoys the support of WTO members such as Australia and, to a lesser extent, the US.

Among European countries, the UK has come closest to advocating the decoupling of policy being implied here. The contention of the UK government in recent years has been that further reform of the CAP should achieve a situation in which the majority of support to farmers is delivered through rural development and agrienvironmental policy programmes. This is presented within a framework of rural policy which seeks to move away from a focus on farming as the keystone of the rural economy in favor of a much wider range of economic activities. A component of this 'alternative paradigm' is a view of the countryside as an increasingly important consumption space in which the growing demand for quality products and the scope for branding goods, services, and places will create new income streams for farmers and their families and enable governments to withdraw from their traditional role as an income guarantor. Agri environmentalists face a dilemma in deciding how far to give this latter, more decoupled model their full support. The idea that subsidies to farmers should be conceived more or less exclusively in public good terms is one that they have campaigned for since the beginning. However, there remain considerable uncertainties about the restructuring implications of such a radical policy shift and the inevitable net withdrawal of government support that would result.

Australian governments have long struggled to reconcile neoliberal policy priorities with the need to tackle an agri environmental crisis that many critics believe requires some form of federal state intervention for their solution. The much vaunted National Landcare Program, introduced in 1989, attempted to persuade farmers to undertake environmental management through better information and voluntary action. In the absence of financial support, and already substantially exposed to world markets, farmers favored measures which improved productivity and business viability such as tree planting for erosion control and shade or establishing permanent pasture. More radical options such as protecting biodiversity or revegatating saline groundwater recharge zones have been much less widely adopted. While some state level initiatives such as the Victoria's Rural Land Stewardship Project suggest a move toward the European 'public payment for public goods' model, Dibden and Cocklin argue that Australian farmers continue to lack the capital, knowledge, or income to generate effective change at the landscape scale. If, as James McCarthy suggests, struggles over multifunctionality are essentially about negotiating the revaluation of rural nature in the context of trade liberalization, then the issue at stake for policymakers in Europe particularly is how far it will be possible to perpetuate working farmed landscapes under world market conditions. Although interest is growing in the scope for 'rewilding' upland landscapes here in the wake of a contraction of farming activity, the idea that there may be other ways of working with nature than through farming has as yet been slow to appear in public debate.


At one level, the invention of agri environmental policy is arguably one of the most significant environmental policy achievements of recent years. Partly a reaction to the sweeping changes in farming practice of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the greening of agricultural policy reflects a profound public reassessment of the role of farmers as providers of public environmental goods. Rather than the use of regulatory instruments, however, the approach followed has been to subsidize farmers so that they can better fulfill their stewardship obligations. In the US, programs like the CRP have brought about land use change on an unprecedented scale and a very significant degree of new investment in conservation capital; in the EU, a large scale experiment is effectively in progress involving the use of environmental contracts in order to achieve landscape, biodiversity, and pollution control policy objectives. Critics point to the essentially second best nature of these reforms, however, and the mixed results that have been achieved in terms of improved environmental outcomes and changes to the behavior and outlook of farmers. Having contributed both as advocates of domestic policy reform and as analysts of policy processes and implementation strategies, geographers are now increasingly interested in the way agrienvironmental concerns are being drawn into an international policy debate centered on the liberalization of agricultural markets and the continuing globalization of agricultural production. Countries like Australia and New Zealand, where farmers are already significantly more exposed to world market forces than their more protected European competitors, are meanwhile closely studied for what they can tell us about the perils and opportunities of agri environmental governance under more open market conditions. Further comparative work is increasingly valued for what it can tell us about the changing role of farmers and 'the nature of nature' in what seems likely to be a period of unprecedented agricultural change.