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CABI Reviews

A reviews journal covering agriculture, global health, nutrition, natural resources and veterinary science

CAB Review

Family farming between its past and potential future with the focus on multifunctionality and sustainability.


Sustainability may be defined in the most general terms as the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. It is also generally conceded that sustainability is multidimensional in that it depends on ecological, social and economic integrity - the three cornerstones of sustainability. It is no surprise then that the functionality of family farming is increasingly being discussed in scholarly literature as an important element in promoting the multiple ecological, social and economic benefits of a sustainable agriculture. This paper provides a review of that body of literature. By examining literature relevant to the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), this paper also explores the economic and social evolution of farming within these two historical and political contexts, giving specific attention to its motivation and functionality. Whereas in the past family farms have been very diverse in motivation and multifunctional in operation, more recent trends have been veering towards monofunctional farms that are primarily, if not solely, economically motivated. The literature review reveals the potential for multifunctional family farms to alter or reverse this development of agriculture towards unsustainable, monofunctional agri-businesses. This review also highlights the potential of agroecology as the scientific foundation for multifunctional family farming as a means of achieving sustainable agriculture. The essential premise of this review is that multifunctional family farming provides the logical rationale and political rhetoric for farm policies that promote and support the multiple benefits of an agriculture that is sustainable.