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.
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.