The Sustainable Rural Development Paradigm in Europe

Since the 1990s a fledgling, sustainable rural development model has been emerging, at least in a European context which has incorporated many of the principles of sustainable agriculture, specifically, agroecology. While building upon the multifunctional assumptions, but also adapting many of the agroecological principles developed in Southern countries, this model attempts to reintegrate agriculture as a multifunctional set of practices. These can hold the potential to enhance the interrelationships between farms and people both in rural and between rural and urban areas. While accepting the realities of much of the cosmopolitan 'consumption countryside' in a European context, the new rural development paradigm distinguishes itself in the emphasis and autonomy it promotes for a reconstituted and engaged agricultural and land based rural sector. This is seen as a potentially new driving force for rural development, both in some policy, as well as academic fora and involves what a group of scholars refer to as broadening, deepening, and regrounding of farm based activities (including new on farm activities like agri tourism, energy production, value added food chains, and a variety of environmental schemes).

Recent studies in Europe estimate that at least 50% of all farmers are actively engaged in some of these new rural development practices. This reasserts the socioenvironmental role of agriculture and other land based activities as a major agent in sustaining rural economies and cultures. It reconnects a renewed priority of agricultural production to the wider markets and social innovations and possibilities (such as aspects of 'retroinnovation' of agricultural practices, local embeddedness, and new forms of ecological entrepreneurship). This is based upon assumptions of the wider associational economics and institutional economics theories which emphasize the significance of 'trust and association based' relationships in new forms of economic development. And, it potentially places sustainable rural development in a more central role in understanding the mechanics and complexities of twenty first century economic reorganization.

In this context agriculture acquires a more comprehensive meaning and displays high integrative potential in that it is recognized as a central feature of delivering real rural sustainable development benefits. This does not necessarily rely upon significant amounts of production subsidy; and can engage the State in new and innovative ways (e.g., in aspects of marketing and procurement policies). To do this it is necessary to create a radical rupture with the agroindustrial processes.

Sustainable agriculture must, in a variety of ways, attempt to find new political, social, and ecological platforms and spaces to distinguish (and exert energy for) itself from the conventional processes which tend to continue to devalue its base. Empirically we see many examples of this across Europe in what has been termed the 'relocalization' of agri food. While these re embedding tendencies have proliferated in some countries (such as Italy and France) more than others (such as UK and the Netherlands), it is now clear that even in those countries where the agri industrial model has historically had the most profound impact, that new 'sociotechnical niches', new spatially embedded networks and structures, are clearly developing.

This is not just associated with the rise of (de jure) organic food production and consumption in Europe (which has indeed been significant). It is also associated with de facto : (1) rises of both locality based and new locally based short food supply chains and (2) the dif ferent responses and ruptures from the conventional system brought about by its periodic and severe crises tendencies (such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), foot and mouth disease (FMD), and Avian Flu). For instance, in South West England new and more autonomous relocalized networks of locally and regionally based beef, dairy, and cheese production have developed partly as some producers have attempted to create a 'rupture' with the past conventional systems. Rather than continue to struggle under the continual pressures of the (agri industrial) conventional cost price squeeze on the one hand, or face the burdensome regulatory costs of the hygienic bureaucratic state on the other, these emerging networks have managed to significantly detach themselves from these 'lock in effects' by developing new sets of relationships both between themselves and with downstream buyers (such as retailers and caterers). It is also clear that these new networks begin to return considerable economic value added for the local rural economy.

There are many critics of the new rural development paradigm given the resilient power of the agri industrial and bioscientific orthodoxies both in research and policy circles. For instance, many agricultural economists still see it as really only another novel form of niche production in the global and WTO context of liberalization and continued agri industrialism – an archipelago within the sea of corporate inspired cost reduction. Some question its more widespread benefits both socially and economically, arguing that such new networks are in themselves socially elitist, and indeed display quite neoliberal tendencies of their own; or that they can also reflect the more sinister features of 'defensive localism' and protected markets. More optimistically, some suggest that this movement begins to represent a sort of postmodern 're peasantization', whereby, networks of landholders begin to develop new organizational systems of autonomous and endogenous rural development; and thereby recreate significant 'room for maneuver'. It is an interesting question as to how the 'peasant' – often regarded as a pejorative concept under the twentiethcentury agricultural modernization project – now potentially reemerges as an empowered ecological entrepreneur within the new rural development paradigm.