Sustainable agriculture produces multiple benefits. Beyond its primary role in providing food and nutrition, sustainable agriculture enhances rural livelihoods, moderates climate impacts, conserves land and natural resources, processes organic waste, preserves ecosystems, and maintains landscape and cultural traditions. Many of these benefits are interlinked and together reinforce sustainability and resilience of agriculture. Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are indivisible and integrated, sustainable agriculture is highlighted in SDG 2.4.1 In the efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs in an efficient manner, it is important to note the potential benefits of promoting sustainable agriculture and how they may contribute to the attainment of other SDGs. At the same time, it is important to integrate the multiple benefits into the measurement of sustainable agriculture, so that the indicator supports a holistic approach to the implementation of the SDGs.
Currently, an indicator for sustainable agriculture (SDG 2.4.1) is being developed for effective follow-up and review. Having participated in the process to develop the methodology of the indicator, the author analyses whether the proposed indicator and discussions at the FAO Expert Meeting for SDG indicator 2.4.1 held in April 20172 reflect the multiple benefits of sustainable agriculture.
Summary of discussions on the indicator for sustainable agriculture at the FAO expert meeting
This Expert Meeting gathered statisticians and technical experts to provide guidance and support on the methodological work being conducted for SDG indicator 2.4.1, which is defined as “percentage of land area under productive and sustainable agriculture”. Building on the previous process, the following formula was used to define the indicator:
Per cent of land under productive and sustainable agriculture = Area under productive and sustainable agriculture / Agricultural area
Since the denominator, agricultural area,3 is an established indicator with time series data, the discussion focused on the numerator “area under productive and sustainable agriculture”. Key questions included: Which economic, social and environmental subindicators would constitute “the area under productive and sustainable agriculture”? Where should the thresholds for sustainability for each subindicator be? How can the subindicators be combined to compute the indicator? From what level and how should the data for the subindicators be collected and calculated?
As a common tool to measure the progress against SDG 2.4, the indicator should be practical, simple, affordable and relevant to both developed and developing countries. These principles limited the desirable number of subindicators to approximately 10. In discussing the subindicators for sustainable agriculture, the participants were also encouraged to keep in mind the principles that are part of broader concepts such as resource efficiency, conservation of ecosystems, protection and improvement of rural livelihoods and social wellbeing, enhancement of resilience and improvement of governance. The following subindicators were initially proposed for consideration (see Table 1).
The participants considered these subindicators in groups and came up with a new list of proposed subindicators (see Table 2), which was further discussed.
The participants also discussed the threshold for each subindicator to determine what is sustainable and what is not. It was challenging to define thresholds that were universal, meaningful and based on established, recognized and scientifically sound standards for some subindicators, in particular social and some environmental subindicators. Rather than setting thresholds, it was suggested that showing change over time in terms of the size of change and the direction of change (e.g. positive or negative) may be more important for some subindicators.
Flexibility and use of the indicator
The discussions highlighted the existing differences in styles, sizes and practices of agriculture among the countries. An important challenge in developing the indicator was to ensure intercountry comparability and, at the same time, give flexibility to respective countries to establish their own targets and thresholds. It was suggested that the long list of subindicators be provided to countries for consideration and that only some of the subindicators be used for the indicator of SDG 2.4.1 for intercountry comparison and global reporting.
Reflection of the discussions in relation to multiple benefits of sustainable agriculture
The discussion recognized the multidimensional role of agriculture. The discussion started by examining economic, social, environmental and resiliency-related subindicators, to which governance was also added. The discussion recognized the multiple aspects of rural livelihoods, such as income, decent work, access to land and security of tenure. Income diversification and access to credit finance and insurance were included as proposed subindicators for resiliency of rural livelihoods. Health and education are key aspects of multidimensional poverty, which is more widely spread in rural areas than urban areas in many countries in Asia and the Pacific; proposed subindicators included both of these aspects.
However, multidimensional “benefits” of sustainable agriculture were not the focus of the discussion. Rather, the focus was where thematic problems lie in making agriculture sustainable and how to capture these problems in subindicators. Therefore, the proposed subindicators constitute minimum building blocks of sustainable agriculture. As a result, the subindicators omitted some important benefits of sustainable agriculture, such as maintenance of cultural traditions, landscape and enhanced ecosystem services.
While it would have been ideal if the indicator could capture all of these benefits of sustainable agriculture, some of the benefits that were left out were difficult to measure. In addition, it was difficult to capture all of them in light of the aim to create an indicator that is simple (which means a limited number of subindicators), affordable, practical and relevant to all countries. While the benefits of sustainable agriculture can vary and are not universal among and within countries, the problems that prevent sustainable agriculture were common to many places. Therefore, it was more practical to identify what prevents sustainability and turn it into subindicators.
Implications for policymakers4
The indicator for sustainable agriculture will be useful in measuring the respective governments' progress against SDG 2.4 in the context of intercountry comparison. The subindicators will be particularly useful in identifying where the problems lie. However, if policymakers rely solely on the proposed subindicators, they may miss out important opportunities to promote benefits associated with sustainable agriculture. As the subindicators are thematically organized, policymakers may be inclined to tackle different thematic areas independently to address problems that prevent sustainable agriculture. However, promotion of sustainable agriculture requires a holistic and integrated approach because the aspects highlighted by subindicators are interlinked. Identification of how they are related and where the leverage points may be can promote synergies among the themes that these subindicators represent.
Policymakers need to be aware of the limitations of the indicators. For example, since the indicator is the area under productive sustainable agriculture, distribution and location of farms under sustainable agriculture are not captured. Because these factors can be important to achieving some benefits, such as landslide and flood prevention, a landscape approach to sustainable land use will be an important concept to integrate in the strategies to promote sustainable agriculture. Also, the indicator does not capture the level of sustainability, because as long as a farm exceeds all of the thresholds, it is considered sustainable.
To address the limitations of the proposed indicator, policymakers need to take a holistic approach to identify relevant and important benefits that they would like to achieve by promoting sustainable agriculture in their respective countries. Enhanced rural livelihoods should be considered one of the major benefits. They should also find systems to achieve these benefits and, if appropriate, consider adding their own unique subindicators to promote multiple benefits.should be considered one of the major benefits.
(List of references can be made available upon request)
1 “By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.”
2 Key materials are available at http://www.fao.org/sustainability/news/expert-meeting-sdg-indicator/en/.
3 Agricultural area = arable land + permanent crops + permanent meadows and pastures.
4 The implications are discussed based on the opinions and proposals shared at the expert meeting. The final design of the indicator may be different.