Contributing to sustainability and human well-being, traditional agricultural systems can serve a multitude of functions. But current developments replace these systems with more mass-marketable substitutes, creating complex environmental, sociocultural, and economic issues. So far, solutions to these challenges have been often too commodity-focused, ignoring the non-monetary functions of the agricultural systems, and the possibility of using place-based approaches or cross-sectoral collaboration. To realize sustainable approaches, a shift in current food system trajectories is needed.
In their new paper, García-Martín et al. (2022) use the concept of landscape products to examine the relationships between the multifunctionality of food and the sustainability of agricultural landscapes. They define landscape products as originating in a distinct landscape, linking to low-input practices and traditional ecological knowledge, and selling at higher prices than mass-marketed products. With this concept, the authors aim to provide an alternative to the concept of sustainable commodification of agricultural production.
Unlike approaching food as a common good with economic and non-economic value, food as a commodity concentrates solely on its economic dimension. The sustainable commodities approach seeks to intensify agricultural systems sustainably, reorganize supply chains to minimize costs, and implement both public and private sector regulations. By targeting product and industry standards to mitigate certain environmental issues, it often omits sustainability dimensions at the production place, including local communities and their cultural practices.
Contrastingly, a landscape sustainability approach fosters collaboration of landscape-level actors and institutions, recognizing the relations between human well-being and landscape-specific services. Yet, this approach neglects the importance of individual agricultural products and their multiple benefits along their supply chains. According to García-Martín et al., landscape products can bridge both concepts, drawing attention to theinteractions between food products and their landscapes of production.
García-Martín et al. analyzed seven case studies around the world (North America, Mexico, Portugal, Morocco, Greece, Mongolia, Japan) to demonstrate the multifunctionality of a landscape product (Maple syrup, maize, cork, sheep meat, semi-hard cheese, yak-milk yogurt and cheese, japonica rice, respectively). They concentrated on four key groups of interrelated landscape product functions: human links to nature; culture and identity; social capital; and nutritional sustenance and economic income (see Fig.1).
Land management, farming practices, traditions, and consumer awareness of product origins are key in linking humans to nature in agricultural landscapes. Landscape products are developed by social-ecological adaptations that enable regional communities to establish deep connections with ecological processes, therefore supporting emotional and cognitive human-nature connections essential for sustainability and well-being. Next, landscape products can act as part of the culture and identity of a community. A rich landscape, traditions, and culinary heritage can be connected to processing landscape products, fostering socio-cultural sustainability. Landscape products can function as mediators between local and extra-local actors in the landscapes of production, creating networks among various actors along the value chain. These networks are based on trust, reciprocity, and shared norms, thus fostering social capital and thereby sustainable systems. Lastly, landscape products aid livelihoods across the value chain by providing sustenance, income, and business opportunities. For example, while local markets often provide less revenue than national or international markets, they are fluctuating less and are less volatile, making producers less vulnerable.
By applying the landscape product lens to the case studies, García-Martín et al. seek to shift the focus towards three key needs in improving food systems: First, a shared appreciation and recognition of the various functions of the landscape products should be reinforced across the value chain. This is especially true for top-down approaches, as they can decrease cooperation and reciprocal, trusting relationships. Second, context-dependent sustainability standards and place-sensitive food policies should be implemented. That way, producers can collaboratively communicate the social-ecological context of their products, increasing the possibility of a consumer supporting the production landscapes. Third, to capitalize on the multifunctionality of landscape products, collaboration efforts should be established across sectors. For example, integrating food production with nature conservation creates advantages of marketing conservation efforts, generating additional income, and supporting biocultural diversity.
Creating a shared appreciation and support for the multifunctionality of landscape products and their associated traditional agricultural systems might help bridge the gap between the social-ecological systems and sustainable commodities approaches to increasing the sustainability of our vitally important food systems.
If you want to read about the details of the study, check out the original paper here.