Why does sustainable agriculture remain a challenge?

The term “sustainable agriculture” has been in use since the late 1980s, and, although interpretations vary, it is usually understood as the adoption of practices and technologies that improve productivity without harming the environment. However, the level at which countries prioritize the use and conservation of natural resources for food production in their development agenda varies greatly, and, social and economic issues have been mostly neglected. Now we are at an important crossroad, and a cross-sectoral and holistic approach for sustainability must be a priority in the agenda for agricultural development. This must not only be driven by countries, with the support of the international community, but also by different key stakeholders in countries. Only then can we move towards more sustainable agriculture.

Nowadays we produce enough food to end hunger and achieve food security, but the main challenge remains, which is to provide access to food for all and to produce more food where it is needed, with the resources available. The problem is, however, that still about 30 percent of the food produced is lost or wasted.

2001,Madagascar - Rice production and fish farming. Man fishing while a farmer weeds the nearby rice field.

IN THE PHOTO: Madagascar – Rice production and fish farming. Man fishing while a farmer weeds the nearby rice field.  PHOTO CREDIT: FAO/Jeanette Van Acker

Another challenge is ensuring good quality of healthy food, considering that issues of hunger, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity are becoming even higher in the global agenda after the 2nd International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), which was held in Rome in 2014. Income growth and urbanization in low- and middle-income countries are also shifting the consumer preference towards greater consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables and away from a cereal-based diet.

We produce enough food to end hunger and achieve food security, but the main challenge remains, which is to provide access to food for all and to produce more food where it is needed, with the resources available.

The fact is that the way we produce most of our food is not sustainable. This is coupled with an unprecedented confluence of challenges that food and agriculture are currently facing. There is still a need to increase food production by an estimated 50 percent by 2050 in relation to 2012 (FAO, 2016), to feed the population of over nine billion people. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s extremely poor people – about 700 million, including landless workers, smallholder family farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples – live in rural areas of developing countries, and their livelihoods almost entirely depend on agriculture. Natural resources are shrinking: 33 percent of land is already moderately or highly degraded, water resources are overexploited, and deforestation and overfishing are damaging ecosystems and biodiversity.  

To make matters worse, climate change has intensified natural hazards and has subsequently had an impact on food production. Between 2003 and 2013, the agriculture sector accounted for about 22 percent of damages caused by natural threats and disasters in developing countries (FAO, 2015). Climate change also affects food availability through its increasingly adverse impacts on crop yields, fish stocks, animal health and productivity, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

11 July 2012, Tangier, Morocco - A fisherman fishing at Ksar Sghir Port. FAO Project: GCP/INT/028/SPA - GCP/INT/006/EC - CopeMed II: Cooordination to support fisheries management in the western and central Mediterranean. The Project will support national and regional fisheries management processes and will take advantage of the scientific multidisciplinary knowledge that was developed during the first phase. The Project will attempt to reduce the differences in fisheries management between northern and southern countries of the region and will try to encourage a sub-regional approach in fisheries research and management. Re-qualifying the artisanal fisheries sector in the Mediterranean, particularly in the fragile coastal zones, is essential to the livelihood of the coastal fishing communities. The Project intends to develop pilot activities to assist the artisanal fisheries sector. The main areas of intervention are the following: -Support the sub regional cooperation (north-south and south-south) and institutional commitment to the shared management of common resources, considering the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries; -The necessary statistical information (biological and socio-economic) for management; -Fisheries research (in its biological, ecological, socio-economic and institutional components) and the strengthening of research and regional scientific cooperation; and -Fisheries Information Networks involving all the actors and support to the regional and national institutions.

IN THE PHOTO: A fisherman fishing at Ksar Sghir Port, 11 July 2012, Tangier, Morocco. PHOTO CREDIT: FAO

Nevertheless, over the past few years, we have witnessed a number of positive initiatives emerge. New transformative global agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, might help to address the aforementioned challenges.

For instance, the 2030 Agenda covers a wide array of issues across 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve sustainable development. It is based on principles of universality (as it involves all countries, rich and poor), indivisibility (the Agenda focuses on several goals simultaneously) and inclusivity (since its implementation requires a multi-stakeholder approach, including the private sector and civil society). For instance, SDG 2 explicitly aims at ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition, while simultaneously promoting sustainable agriculture. Thus, when approached comprehensively, SDG 2 cuts across many SDGs, in particular SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG3 (health and well-being); SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 6 (water), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 10 (inequality), SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (oceans), SDG 15 (ecosystems, biodiversity and forests) and SDG 16 (peaceful societies).

Natural resources are shrinking: 33 percent of land is already moderately or highly degraded, water resources are overexploited, and deforestation and overfishing are damaging ecosystems and biodiversity.

The Paris Climate Agreement is a global treaty that seeks to limit climate change through adaptation and mitigation (decrease in greenhouse gas emissions). The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction outlines seven clear targets and four priorities for action to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks. And the Addis Ababa Action Agenda is a framework for financing development.

Together these global objectives are expected to guide the actions of the international community over the next 13 years (2017-2030), and they should be implemented in a complementary and synergistic manner. They are designed to tackle the large global developmental challenges, with the ultimate ambition of ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition and responding to climate change, while achieving inclusive growth, building resilient communities and sustainably managing our natural resources.

Hedgerow intercropping. Hedgerow of Laucaena leucocephala (Leguminosae) and maize as a companion crop in a field at Wenchi. Leucaena fixes nitrogen. - - Support to national agro-forestry programme in Ghana: GHA/88/007. This project assisted by the UNDP/Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) operates various demonstration plots where farmers are taught new or improved agricultural techniques such as the use of Leucaena leucocephala intercropped with food crops where the

IN THE PHOTO: Hedgerow intercropping. PHOTO CREDIT: FAO

Food and agriculture are at the heart of these agendas, but the aforementioned challenges can only be overcome if communities are prioritised and if a ‘business-as-usual’ approach is abandoned.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has developed a common vision for sustainable food and agriculture, based on five principles:

1) Improved efficiency in the use of resources;

2) Conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources;

3) Improved rural livelihoods and social well-being;

4) Enhance resilience of people, communities and ecosystems to climate change and threats;

5) Responsible and effective governance mechanisms.

The vision addresses the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. Those principles are fully in line with all the global agendas and, as such, should be implemented altogether and in a synergistic way; have the process driven by countries; be cross-sectoral; be managed through a multi-stakeholder approach; be adaptable to changing demands; and be results-based. However, it is always important to keep in mind that sustainability has no end-point: it should be seen as a continuous and evolving process.

Humans depend in many ways on ecosystems and their services for basic needs: agrobiodiversity including genetic resources, clean water, shelter, food and raw materials.

Moreover, ecosystems regulate our environment and production systems: pollination through wild bees, insect-pest and disease control through natural enemies, water purification through trees and forests, and soil fertility maintenance through nutrient cycling and nitrogen-fixing plants – those are just a few ecosystem services that support the functioning of agro-ecosystems in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. These are just some examples of how implementing sustainable food and agriculture programs span across sectors and therefore require an integrated approach. From an environmental point of view, landscape (territorial) management has been successfully applied and should be considered because it helps to integrate agriculture, forestry and fish production with natural resources management and conservation, as well as identify trade-offs and synergies among the different principles of sustainable food and agriculture, including special focus on people and communities.

Pigs in a rice paddy where they provide fertilization. - - Farmers Field School: SPFP/CMB/6701. Eighty percent of the Cambodian population is dependent on subsistence farming with rice as the main agricultural crop. The agricultural sector contributes to almost 50 percent of the GDP of the country, although agricultural productivity is low in comparison with neighboring countries in Asia. Food production remains highly vulnerable to the effects of adverse weather conditions such as flooding or droughts. Years of civil strife have taken substantial agricultural areas out of production, and a large part of the population of Cambodia is subject to temporary, seasonal or chronic food shortages and nutritional deficiencies. The objective of the Special Programme for Food Security in Cambodia is to maximize national food self-sufficiency and to reduce the risks of disruptive variations in supply, by demonstrating and facilitating a rapid increase in agricultural productivity and food production on an economically and environmentally sustainable basis. Various techniques and technologies have been identified to increase agricultural production, depending on the potential and constraints in the seven selected pilot areas. These include water control techniques, crop intensification, improved pig and poultry production, analysis and evaluation. Integrated pest management is one of the crop intensification technologies and farmers' field schools are set up to educate farmers' groups in the pilot areas.

IN THE PHOTO: Pigs in a rice paddy where they provide fertilization. PHOTO CREDIT: FAO

In addition, it is clear that further work needs to be done to spread awareness about sustainable agriculture production. Political support is indispensable to create a welcoming environment for sustainable food and agriculture at a country level. Without a strong political will to introduce changes and ensure policy support, transformations will not be implemented.

Some key drivers of transition towards sustainable agriculture are presented here below, keeping in mind the five principles of sustainable food and agriculture, the three pillars of sustainability and a cross-sectoral and holistic approach. If implemented together with strong national support, they can pave way to a more sustainable food and agriculture:

1) Innovative and adequate policies and incentives (such as regulations, taxes, subsidies, pro-poor social protection, payment for conservations of ecosystem services and biodiversity, land tenure, and access to the market that can increase income and livelihoods for the rural population, particularly for those that are highly dependent on agriculture).

Special attention should be given to gender equality, youth employment and income diversification. Policy coherence and integration requires structural changes in the way policies are formulated and implemented, with the engagement of new stakeholders from the private sector and civil society as well as from local communities.

2) Research & Development & Innovation (R&D&I) to promote climate change adaptation and mitigation, sustainable intensification with efficient use of resources, conservation of ecosystem services and biodiversity and access by smallholder family producers. The research agenda needs to evolve from being centrally developed to include stakeholder’s participation; from production increases to sustainable food systems, integrating social, economic and environmental components; from farm to value chains and a territorial approach; from supply of technologies to co-developing innovation with multi-actor networks; and from reductionist to systemic and interdisciplinary (Tropical Agriculture Platform 2016). Therefore, integrated agricultural production systems (i.e. agro-forestry, agroecology, crop-livestock, agrosilvopastoralism, crop-fish, etc.) should be a priority in the R&D&I agenda, with a strong emphasis on ecosystem management and conservation of natural resources. They generate positive impacts on the environment and resilience to climate change as well as nutrition through diet diversification.

3) Investments and financial aid in support of ending hunger, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture and food systems.

The majority of investments in agriculture come from farmers. Therefore working directly with producers and responding to their needs would facilitate the development of financial products that can foster sustainable agriculture production in all sectors. For instance, promoting credit cooperatives may facilitate smallholder producers’ access to financing and allow inputs, energy and natural resources to be used in a more ecological manner. Public investments in rural infrastructure and in developing innovative markets can improve income and livelihoods for poor farmers.

4) Improved governance and institutions for inclusive food systems

In conclusion, to implement the new challenges facing sustainability, innovative governance mechanisms and institutions are necessary at national and sub-national levels. This means that sustainable agriculture food systems should no longer be developed solely by the Ministry of Agriculture but through cross-ministerial coordination. Moreover, new structures and mechanisms are required to promote a multi-stakeholder dialogue with the participation of non-traditional parties, such as private companies, consumers, non-governmental organizations and producers with the aim of formulating and implementing public instruments and regulations in a holistic and coherent way.


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