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Agriculture – a keystone for sustainable development

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As the world’s leading employer, agriculture is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

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In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, small-scale farmers in developing countries must be involved in the transformation of agri-food systems.

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN in 2015 led to wide recognition of the paramount importance of the agricultural sector in ensuring socioeconomic progress – it is currently the world's leading employer and plays a vital role in the livelihoods of 40% of the population.

Agriculture is obviously the main focus of Goal 2, which aims to achieve 'zero hunger'. But the agricultural sector is also involved, to different extents, in Goals 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action), and 14 and 15 (related to conserving aquatic and terrestrial life). Agriculture is also a focus of Goal 5, which is geared towards promoting women's rights to land ownership; this sector is therefore a key component in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to achieve the SDGs. According to the multi-stakeholder Farming First coalition, established to promote sustainable development worldwide, “Agriculture is the common thread which holds the 17 SDGs together.”

Yet, the latest news indicates that agriculture is faltering. All African countries, for instance, have been rated very poorly by the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa in its latest report on SDGs in Africa. In 2018, around 70% of the countries regressed in the areas of food security and sustainable agriculture (SDG 2), access to affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) and the protection of marine ecosystems (SDG 14). Worse, “This is the third consecutive year that progress in ending hunger has stalled and now has actually increased (in 2015, 2016 and 2017). Child stunting is a major problem and nearly 2 billion still suffer from hidden hunger or a deficiency of important nutrients. This also includes people who are overweight or obese,” warned FAO director general José Graziano da Silva at the Accelerating the End of Hunger and Malnutrition Conference, held in Bangkok in November 2018.

Millions more to feed

FAO has drawn up a list of factors impacting the future of agriculture and agri-food systems, including: population growth, urbanisation, climate change, technological progress, food trends, wealth sharing, the state of natural resources, conflicts and peace, etc. In this changing environment, how can global agri-food systems be transformed, and how can ACP farmers be guaranteed benefits from the changes? It is unclear how these factors will unfold, yet certain trends are emerging: farmers will have to produce more with fewer available resources, while preserving the environment, in order to meet the needs of a world population that is expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) considers that, relative to 2010, three gaps will have to be bridged in order to feed the world population in a sustainable way by 2050: it will be necessary to produce 56% more crop calories, expand the agricultural land area by an additional 593 million ha (nearly twice the size of India), while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions by 11 Gt to keep global warming below 2°C. WRI warns that this will be impossible without acting collectively with the world's 700 million smallholder farmers to sustainably transform agri-food systems and value chains.

According to the latest UN report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 821 million people are currently undernourished, and this situation has not improved in the last 10 years. FAO estimates that, if nothing changes, 653 million people will still be malnourished by 2030, despite the fact that governments have committed themselves to ending hunger in the world by that date. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) sums up the situation by stating that global agri-food systems will have to be transformed within the next decade if we are to be on track in achieving the SDGs.

A more holistic approach

Tremendous progress is required, but the task is not impossible. The international community has made a remarkable first step by placing agriculture at the nexus of the SDGs, thus shifting the sector’s approach. “There is a trend towards a holistic agri-food systems approach, encompassing agriculture as the centre of multiple development outcomes, interlinked with major issues such as poverty, climate change, and health,” explains Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “While policies and programmes previously have focused mainly on addressing rapid urbanisation and urban areas, they are now shifting to revitalise rural areas at the same time.”

The new inclusive approach aims mainly to offset the burden that urbanisation and the growth of the middle-class are placing on agri-food systems. It will also stimulate domestic demand and reduce dependence on exports to other countries, claims the IFPRI representative. In Kenya, for example, Bio Food Products Ltd., supported by USAID, has helped farmers access funding, equipment and training to enable them to produce quality milk. The result is that farmers now have much better incomes, while city residents have access to quality dairy products and the company is turning a profit (see our article Agri-investment: Increased demand for Kenyan dairy products).

Proposals for action to achieve the necessary agricultural transition are not lacking. FAO has, for instance, put forward a list of 20 integrated and interdependent actions aimed at linking the many facets of agriculture and rural development to a country's overall development agenda, thus laying the foundations for resilient and sustainable societies. The actions include facilitating farmer access to finance and markets, combating climate change and reforming the institutional framework.

In a recent Info Note, CCAFS proposes a six-part action plan to transform food systems under climate change to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs. These steps include: strengthening farmer and consumer organisations, which must play a central role in agricultural transformation; propelling food systems into the digital age; changing the scale of climate-resilient practices and technologies; promoting innovative financing to leverage public and private investment; reshaping value chains, food distribution and procurement; and supporting gender equality, capacities and policies.

Meanwhile, IFPRI ranks 'accelerators' of change to end hunger and malnutrition into three categories: national strategies; policies, programmes and institutions; and technologies. Practically, this translates into market-oriented reforms and public investment; engineering social protection programmes to help markets deliver better nutrition for farmers and consumers; and the increased uptake of ICTs within value chains.

Innovation the silver bullet?

All of these proposals focus on the need to define new business and agricultural models – innovation is the watchword. Tanzanian farmers, for example, have decided to find new uses for Allanblackia trees, which grow in the African tropics, by using the seed oil to produce skin creams and lotions. The high demand for such products in developed countries has prompted farmers to seize this market opportunity, thus enabling them to increase their incomes, while learning to preserve the environment by ensuring their main resource (trees) are growing and producing well.

Fan points out that, “Adopting climate-smart, multiple-win strategies can help smallholder farmers strengthen climate resilience and enhance productivity in an environmentally-sustainable manner. In particular, innovative agricultural technologies that are yield-enhancing can have multiple wins.” Working along these lines, CTA focuses its actions on providing farmers with access to climate-smart services and technologies – such as indexed weather insurance and drought-resistant seeds – and on promoting policies to combat climate change.

Like most experts, Fan stresses the importance of innovative agricultural technologies. Among these innovations, digital technologies are booming and have shown their usefulness in providing financing services (especially for women), access to weather information, agricultural advice and inputs, and in promoting precision agriculture. “We have direct experience of mobile technologies assisting farmers in Uganda and Kenya to access markets in a fair and transparent manner, which would have been impossible without the use of technology,” says Ray Jordan, Group CEO of Self Help Africa and Farming First spokesperson. He mentions a social enterprise that links farmers to markets: “TruTrade is a trading platform which… gives farmers visibility of all the costs associated with getting their product to market,” while going on to say, “It also gives farmers the confidence that they will be treated fairly [by retailers] in the transaction so that they will plant again next year.”

Global agri-food systems need to be transformed to feed around 10 billion people by 2050

Global agri-food systems need to be transformed to feed around 10 billion people by 2050

The need for adequate policies

For technologies to be able to fully play their disruptive or transformative role in agricultural development, two further elements are needed: an appropriate policy framework and sufficient public and private investment. In the above-mentioned CCAFS report, the organisation offers the following analysis regarding policy: “For a true transformation in food systems – one that enables food and nutrition security for all, today and tomorrow – policy has to create incentives, foster a level playing field, ensure support for those left behind, and catalyse investment and action in food systems that meet the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Ethiopia has been pursuing a proactive policy in this area for two decades. The SDGs are an integral part of the country's National, Growth and Transformation Plan, which outlines the objectives sector by sector. As such, the governmental Agricultural Transformation Agency oversees 25 national ‘production and productivity’ and ‘agribusiness and markets’ projects. They include the development and distribution of improved seeds, soil quality mapping, the formation of farmers' cooperatives, market access assistance and the development of rural agricultural services. According to the UNDP, Ethiopian agricultural production has been growing rapidly for more than a decade, farmers have received training and more inputs, while food security is improving despite the recurring droughts.

Private sector response

Funding is another important factor for agricultural transformation. FAO's Graziano da Silva noted at the Bangkok conference that some €232 billion per year will be needed to eradicate hunger and poverty in the world by 2030. The private sector is called upon to help as the public sector withdraws: agricultural aid in developing countries reached €11 billion in 2016, representing 6% of donor funding, compared to 20% in the 1980s.

Beyond the financial issue, partnerships with the private sector – entrepreneurs, farmers' organisations, cooperatives, SMEs and multinationals – can enhance development through inputs of expertise, technologies and knowledge transfer, while also spurring innovation, job creation and diversified sources of income. “Companies must play a role,” claims Paolo Barilla, vice chairman at the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition. “Barilla has begun to implement sustainable farming by teaming up with farmers on our most relevant raw material: durum wheat needed to make pasta. Together, we combine the wisdom of our ancestors’ crop rotation with modern tools, such as advanced meteorological forecasting technology. Farmers decrease their use of fertilisers and their land remains fertile. It is a win-win-win situation,” he explains.

New food diets

Dietary changes are also necessary for agricultural transformation. FAO estimates that, “roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion t – gets lost or wasted.” Meanwhile, in January 2019, The Lancet published a study by a committee of experts which proposes a ‘great food transformation’. While estimating that the daily per capita dietary intake is 2,500 calories – less than the current average of 3,700 calories in rich countries, but more than that of developing countries at 2,200 calories – the experts recommend doubling global fruit, vegetable, nut and legume consumption, and reducing red meat and sugar consumption by over 50%. Adjusting diets as suggested in the study would generate a range of development opportunities for small-scale farmers around the world.

The data challenge

How can appropriate policies be formulated to achieve the SDGs without reliable updated data? At a time when digital technologies are being widely adopted, including in the agricultural sector, “There are huge and growing inequalities in access to data and information and in the ability to use it,” notes the Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. The group’s 2014 report, A World That Counts, highlighted two major challenges: invisibility (things that we don’t know because of a lack of data) and inequality (gaps between those with and those without information). Many initiatives are being undertaken to meet these challenges, such as the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative. GODAN proposes to set up a portal accessible by governments, the UN, civil society and the private sector to promote accountability and transparency on achievements and progress towards realising the SDGs (see our interview, Data on all levels is very valuable to the value chain). Experts at the organisation note that, “Currently, the considerable lack of open data on agriculture, food security and nutrition inputs and outcomes will not allow the global community to assess whether SDG2 will be met in 2030.” To address this, GODAN’s recent report, A Collaborative Process towards a SDG2 Accountability Framework, points out that, “Increasing mutual accountability will be a prerequisite for achieving the SDGs.”

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