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The Metric

Aug 4, 2015

What do the Sustainable Development Goals say about agriculture?

The final text of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals were adopted this week. Looking through the language of the goals and targets yields a complicated picture of the future of sustainable agriculture.
Boy on Carabao
Photo from Flickr by Brian Evans

Among the myriad lofty objectives of the UN’s freshly-minted Sustainable Development Goals (pdf), keeping the the earth’s growing population fed while not trashing the earth’s resources is among the most vexing.

Barring catastrophe, the earth is set to host another 2 billion people in the next 35 years or so, on a planet which is bound to see increased variability, and vulnerability, of crop yields. Meanwhile, groundwater and surface water available for agriculture will decline in key agricultural areas from Northwestern India to the Central Valley of California. Considering agriculture is responsible for 50-80% of water withdrawals in just about every country on the planet, this is not good news.

Neither is the troubling reality that the industrial systems of food production and distribution that arose during the 20th Century are heavily dependent on fossil fuels and phosphorus-and-nitrogen-based fertilizers, both of which pose mounting risks to people and the environment.

Enter Goal 2. It endeavors to build a more ecologically and socially just food system by lumping  together three key objectives: ending hunger, improving nutrition and food security, and achieving sustainable agricultural systems. These issues are so pervasive and contingent on the content of other goals, from battling poverty to protecting forests, that they ripple across the entire framework of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In this post, we take a look at the targets dealing directly with sustainable agricultural production—setting aside health, nutrition, and hunger as intrinsically connected but separate issues. The objective is to observe how sustainable agriculture is defined under the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals and to push consideration of some ideal indicators to track them.


Farm worker, Namsaling. Women make up a majority of global farm labor. Sustainable agriculture will depend largely on their status and participation. Photo from Flickr by Byron.

The Targets help the Goals make sense

Taken at face value, the Sustainable Development Goals read like an idealized laundry list for global prosperity (Ending hunger and poverty in all forms by 2030? Sure why not!) Fortunately, each goal contains a series of targets that make them relatively more achievable. The targets under Goal 2 tend to fall into three categories; increasing nutrition and ending hunger, increasing food security and nutrition, and ecologically sustainable agricultural production.

The definition of sustainable agriculture is really comprised of numerous strands of issue areas. Water must be used efficiently and it should not wind up being contaminated. Yields must keep up with demand without increasing inputs like fertilizers and pesticides to destructive levels. Agricultural lands must not encroach upon already threatened natural ecosystems. Braiding those strands into a coherent definition is still very much a work in progress.


The Sustainable Development Goals must focus on agriculture as people, working the land. Photo from Flickr by j h.

Laying out the Strands

Within the language of the Sustainable Development Goals, equity between wealthy and developing countries, as well as people across the economic spectrum, is written into targets so thoroughly that it is central to any given theme. Given the strong relationship between equity and sustainable agriculture, it’s not surprising that the Goals explicitly tie them. Targets 2.3 and 2.5 make direct mention of equity, while 2.4’s focus on adaptation and resilience is an implicit nod to the distributional implications of climate change and population pressure. Beyond equity, a number of other primary concerns can be roughly understood as the “strands” of sustainable agriculture: Land use, pollution, efficiency, markets/investment, yield, and crops.

  • Agriculture is land. The ways in which the targets discuss land in relation to sustainable agriculture are of note. Target 2.3 seeks to “double agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers” through, among other things, “secure and equal access to the land.” In other words, it posits land rights and access as a driver of increased productivity. Meanwhile, targets 15.2 and 15.3 seek to combat deforestation and desertification, both of which implicitly require proper management of agricultural lands. Expansion of working lands is currently the key driver of deforestation, for instance. So in two goals, we see  two different ways land is understood with respect to sustainable agriculture: in terms of rights and in terms of the management of natural resources.
  • Yield is a firm tenet. Earth’s population is going to grow. Cities will continue to expand. The key will be to hold on to existing agricultural lands, making them more productive, without encroaching on natural ecosystems. That means greatly increasing yields. Suggestions for how to do this are scattered across the Goals, including making investments in technologies and infrastructure and promoting access to genetic resources. But implicit tensions between the drive to increase yields through inputs and industrialized methods on one hand, and protection of small-scale farming communities or natural resources on the other, remain unresolved. Land grabs by wealthy players to grow food for global commodities markets exacerbate these tensions and provide chilling suggestions of what can happen if increasing yield is not balanced with the protection of small-holder rights.

  • The type of crops are important, not just the amount. Target 2.5’s emphasis on genetic diversity, diversified seed and plant banks, and traditional knowledge is a big-time nod to diverse, local crop varieties. The preference is echoed in targets 2.4, 15.6, 15.9.
  • Efficiency gains must be pervasive. If any of this—increased crop yield, protection of resources like water and soil, land conservation—is going to work, the global community is going to have to step up its efficiency game. We are going to have to use nutrient fertilizers and pesticides better, so they don’t poison our waterways, soils, and us. We are going to have to greatly increase irrigation efficiency. We are going to have to be more efficient with the land we already use. And we are going to have to be efficient with our investments. Efficiency is the great cross-cutting theme of sustainable agriculture. It is also, as ever, the lowest-hanging fruit.
  • Pollution endangers the whole enterprise. In wealthy nations, yield will have to grow or remain steady without increased use of polluting fertilizers or pesticides. In poorer nations, use of fertilizers or pesticides may have to increase to bring yields to necessary levels. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production and distribution are a growing concern.
  • Markets matter. The Goals acknowledge that for sustainable agricultural practice to take hold globally, the market will be a driver. Target 2.a calls for increased investment in international cooperation and technology sharing. Meanwhile, Target 2.b calls for the prevention of trade restrictions, including the “parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies.” To a great extent, market involvement in sustainable agriculture under the Goals looks like correcting inequities and distortions that favor wealthy nations and industrialized agriculture. However it will be up to the indicator process to know just how well investment and markets will guarantee the kind of equity the Goals call for, as the history of this relationship has not been a completely rosy one.

    So now what?

    Cross-cutting themes will drive the implementation process by drawing out linkages between targets for countries overwhelmed by all 169 of them. And it will help bundle themes that, when taken as contingent upon each other, help define a sustainable future.

    It is possible to increase yield through high inputs and water inefficiency, or by denying land rights to smallholders in lieu of large scale, industrialized farming. It is also possible to decrease nutrient pollution by reducing fertilizer use wholesale—but then what about feeding everybody?

    Bison on Full Circle Bison farm in Oregon. For the Goals to succeed, all countries have to acknowledge their applicability. Photo from Flickr by Friends of Family Farmers.

    Successful indicators for sustainable agriculture will be compatible to a unified vision that treats all the themes in the section above as important, while also cohering to the distributional imperatives of Goal 2. Goals for nutrient efficiency, for instance, will recognize that countries will have differential targets based on natural resources and climatic conditions, and that some countries will actually have to increase their use of fertilizers to achieve greater food security. And indicators that account for productivity will need to take into account both land and labor. Increasing yield per hectare planted is important, but if we are to deliver prosperity and livelihoods to poor, rural people, we cannot pretend that agriculture isn’t about people working the land.

    The only way indicators will truly be about people is through thoughtful collection of disaggregated data. The visibility permitted through disaggregation will be essential to ensure that equity is authentically prioritized by the Sustainable Development Goals. About 2.5 billion people worldwide live in full-or-part-time small-holder farming households, for instance. 500 million small-holder farms exist, the vast majority of farms on the planet. On these farms, a majority of the labor is performed by women. All of these demographic facts necessitate a process of implementation that seeks to get as personal as possible.

    Lastly, if markets are going to play a key role in the process, they are going to have to serve everybody, not just the wealthy. That means real attention to increasing opportunities for small-holder farmers and their communities. Increasing access to affordable productive inputs and sustainable farming practice (through extension workers, for instance) will be critical for increasing yield while protecting resources. Better access to food storage and local markets will reduce food loss, which is among the biggest obstacles to food security everywhere. Wage gaps between rural and urban communities—as well as between genders— will have to be addressed. And market information must be more readily available to rural people, perhaps through enhanced mobile coverage or community organizing.

    Markets can serve as a mirror for the wealthy nations who have historically treated development as a flow of aid from them to poorer countries. Some points in the above paragraph apply to the needs of rural people in the United States. Other market needs, like increasing the resilience of small family farms to withstand price volatility, or curtailing the rapidly declining population of rural areas through diversified opportunity, are also relevant. Whether we like it or not, the future of agriculture will be driven by the markets that underlie it. If that future is going to be sustainable, markets will structure that sustainability. That requires changes across the board, not just in the Global South.