Agriculture holds key to UN Sustainable Development Goals

Two women are shown better farming techniques at one of a hundred gardens in Cape Town. [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming.

Agriculture will play a crucial role in addressing the planet’s future needs – whether on food production, health or the preservation of the environment. But transforming the dominant agricultural model could be the greatest challenge of all.

Last year the United Nations adopted its post-2015 agenda, setting out 17 Sustainable Development Goals to tackle contemporary global challenges by 2030.

The goals span the whole range of policy areas, from rural poverty to global hunger, climate resilience, and population growth. Nine of them are directly or indirectly connected with farming, conferring a special multi-dimensional status to agriculture.

Achim Steiner, the United Nations’ Under Secretary General and Executive Director, stressed that agriculture was key in a world of 9 billion consumers, with climate change and resource constraints becoming more present.

“Agriculture needs to be an integral part of the solutions for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which requires a systems approach,” he told the 9th Annual Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) in Brussels last month (22 March).

A mammoth task

The UN projects that the global population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and will exceed 11.2 billion by 2100.

However, access to food remains an issue for many around the globe. An estimated 780 million people were undernourished across the developing world in 2014–16, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

In contrast, a recent study showed that about 640 million people – mainly from high-income countries – are overweight or obese, including 375 million women and 266 million men.

Obesity on the rise, WHO targets in jeopardy

Obesity is on the rise globally and current trends suggest that health targets are in danger of not being met, according to a new study. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“While it’s important to also tackle food waste and obesity, these do not change the fact that we will need to produce much more food on the same number of hectares in order to feed a growing population without further encroaching on the world’s remaining natural spaces,” said Brandon Mitchener, Public Affairs Lead for Monsanto Europe.

At the same time, agriculture has been a heavy emitter for the environment.

The latest FAO estimates of greenhouse gas data show that emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past fifty years and could rise by an additional 30% by 2050 if immediate measures are not taken.

Total annual emissions from agriculture hit a record 5,335 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2011, almost 9% higher than the average during the previous decade (2001-2010). Asia comes first with 44% of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, followed by the Americas (25%), Africa (15%), Europe (12%), and Oceania (4%).

On an EU level, agriculture accounted for 10% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2012.

“Sustainable intensification”

According to Monsanto, “sustainable intensification” can provide the solution to produce “much more food” on the same number of hectares. “This is not a misnomer – contrary to what is taught in French, German and Italian public school textbooks,” Mitchener told

So what is sustainable intensification? According to Mitchener, this includes techniques like “No-till farming and expanded use of cover crops and smart irrigation” which he says “can help farmers produce more, create healthier soils, trap carbon and save energy all at the same time.”

On its website, Monsanto also cites genetically modified crops, saying they help reduce carbon dioxide emissions “because farmers don’t have to till their fields as many times to control weeds or apply as much insecticide to protect crops from pests.”

Reforming the agri-model

Transforming the global agricultural system in order to adjust to the modern needs and feed the world is a lengthy process that will take years, if not decades. This is why agri-food giants like Syngenta, Unilever and Monsanto have also taken a long-term approach to tackling these challenges.

Most agri-food giants have set up partnerships with farmers aiming to ensure the sustainable sourcing of their products and raw materials, taking account of environmental, social and economic considerations at the same time.

Farmers act under specific “code” rules for cultivation and production while participating in the schemes on a voluntary basis.

Known as sustainable farming, the aim of those industry-led initiatives is to produce, via innovative practices, the greatest amount of food using the fewest resources possible.

One example is Syngenta’s Good Growth Plan, a strategy aligned with the UN’s SDGs. Its objective is to make a measurable contribution by 2020 on six commitments focusing on making crops more efficient, rescuing more farmland and enhancing biodiversity. Protecting and empowering smallholders also take center stage.

“Since we launched the Plan in 2013, 4 million hectares of farmland has been enhanced through biodiversity or soil preservation initiatives,” Syngenta Chief Operating Officer Jon Parr told EURACTIV. So far, the scheme has helped more than 17 million smallholders improve their productivity through training and technology while improving sustainability.

Asked by EURACTIV what is happening with the farmers who do not respect the sustainability rules and produce out of the agreed context, he replied: “The Good Growth Plan is inclusive and interactive where the feedback of farmers and growers about what is and isn’t working is critical […] It is important to note, however, that participation in The Good Growth Plan is completely voluntary.”

He added that after the second year the company has “a very good retention rate of the growers working with us”.

Other agri-food companies focus on raw materials. Unilever, a British-Dutch multinational corporation, has set an ambitious target to source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, with intermediary targets set for 2010 (10%), 2012 (30%) and 2015 (50%).

“55% of our agricultural raw materials are now coming from sustainable sources, up from 14% in 2010,” said Freek Bracke, Corporate Communications Manager at Unilever Benelux.

The company announced in February an achievement of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across more than 600 sites, in 70 countries.

Food industry focuses on sustainable sourcing to mitigate climate change

SPECIAL REPORT / Faced with a raw materials scarcity due to climate change, food and drink giants have turned to a sustainable management in order to protect the environment and ensure their future viability.

Concentration of production

But the activities of agri-food companies have come under heavy criticism from environmental activists who point to their excessive influence on global commodity markets.

“Deregulation in agricultural markets over the last 20 years has led to the increased concentration of the food chain into the hands of a few corporate giants who now are controlling the chemicals, seeds, trading, manufacturing and retailing of our food system,” said Stanka Becheva, food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

The colossal bargaining power of those agri-food giants gives them the capacity to weigh on “both policies and the prices of agricultural products,” she told EURACTIV.

Becheva was also sceptical about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals saying they are not sufficiently centered on human rights.  In her view, the implementation of the SDGs risked promoting a conventional model of development without addressing the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, “resulting in business as usual”.

“The new agenda is still biased in favour of the action of the corporate sector, which uses niche markets to increase their profits, without advancing any concrete attempt to redirect the currently unsustainable business model.”

“Sustainable development goals are integrated into the Common Agricultural Policy, into our agricultural research and innovation policy, and into our agri-food trade policy. European agricultural policy is assuming leadership in implementing the relevant SDGs. This leadership will evolve and deepen in the coming years, working on its own steam and in tandem with other EU and international policies," Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development recently stressed, noting that the private sector has the “resources to transform the agricultural economy of developing countries”.

Speaking at the FFA Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University, said:

“Agriculture stands at the heart of the challenge of sustainable development. Yet the challenges are daunting. We must feed a growing world population with a nutritious diet; raise the living standards of smallholder farmers; make the food supply resilient to climate shocks; and lower the impact of the farm sector on land, water, and climate.”

“This is a profound challenge that will require the best of science, policy, business, and civil society operating together in a bold and cooperative manner,'' he added.

In 2015 the UN General Assembly set 17 measurable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from ending world poverty to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by 2030.

Nine of these goals are directly or indirectly connected with farming, conferring a special multidimensional status to agriculture.

Faced with a growing global population, food insecurity and climate change, agriculture has a leading role to play.

Subscribe to our newsletters