By Jean-Marc Faurès (Senior Programme Officer) and Amy Heyman (Programme Officer)
Sustainable Agriculture Programme
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
October 16, 2017
The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) drive countries’ efforts towards a world where poverty and hunger are past memories and where economic development is sustainable and inclusive. The second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) is often referred to as the ‘zero hunger’ goal. When we think of ending hunger, we think about a world where people have enough food to sustain the basic activities of everyday life: working, taking care of their families, pursuing their life interests. Yet SDG2 goes much beyond this. It is also about promoting a more sustainable agriculture, which is the first fundamental step to securing zero hunger.
Food and agriculture are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, and many of the SDGs address issues directly and indirectly related to agriculture. Agriculture is our primary link to our planet. It is from our planet, from its land, its water, and its rich biodiversity that we draw the resources that feed us. But agriculture is also culture and the main source of income for a large part of the world’s population.
Progress towards implementing the 2030 Agenda is being measured through a set of 232 indicators that cover all of the SDGs and associated targets. According to a review by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food and agriculture span across all 17 goals and are reflected in 53 indicators. SDG indicator 2.4.1, which measures progress towards more sustainable and productive agriculture, offers the most comprehensive measures of agriculture’s contribution to sustainable development. But what exactly is sustainable agriculture? And how do we measure it? FAO – together with its international partners – are now working to do precisely this.
Defining sustainable agriculture
There has been considerable discussion over the past thirty years on how to define “sustainable agriculture.” There is no doubt that agriculture contributes to development – as an economic activity, as a source of livelihood, and as provider and user of environmental services. But the 2030 Agenda suggests that all sectors, including agriculture, be considered from three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.
In the past sustainable agriculture has been associated with environmental issues: if the soil was bad, or if water was not managed well, then a farm was considered unsustainable. In recent years, however, there has been a realization that being sustainable reaches much further, to include economic and social dimensions, and putting farmers in the center. If a farm is not economically sound or not resilient to external shocks, or if the well-being of those working on a farm is not considered, then a farm cannot be sustainable.
SDG indicator 2.4.1 is defined as the “percentage of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture.” Within the SDG framework, this indicator has been categorized as ‘Tier III’ indicator, which means that it does not yet have an internationally recognized methodology. FAO as the ‘custodian’ U.N. agency is working together with experts – from national statistical offices in countries, other international organizations, civil society and the private sector – to define the methodology and build support for this important indicator. The goal is to make sure the indicator is owned by all key stakeholders, especially by the countries who will be responsible for reporting on progress towards the SDGs.
FAO uses the five principles of Sustainable Food and Agriculture (SFA) to identify the key elements to be considered in developing indicator 2.4.1: improving efficiency in the use of resources; conserving, protecting, and enhancing natural resources; protecting and improving livelihoods; enhancing resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems; and providing sustainable governance. The indicator is further organized around the three dimensions of sustainability.
Measuring sustainable agriculture
Sub-indicators across the three dimensions (social, economic, and environmental) form the basis for defining sustainable agriculture. First, people are at the center. For them to achieve economic well-being, a farm must be profitable, pay decent wages, and have access to various forms of credit, finance, or insurance. They must be able to rely on more than one source for their income, both on and off the farm. They must feel that the land where they work will not be taken away from them tomorrow and that there is longevity to their employment. And the natural resources used on a farm, including water and soil, must be protected for the future.
The sub-indicators proposed are: land productivity; farm income; access to financial services; soil health; water use; water quality; biodiversity; wage rates in agriculture; agricultural household income; and land tenure. These sub-indicators are very much aligned with other SDG indicators, including 2.3 on smallholder farmer productivity, 2.5 on genetic resources, 5.a on access to land, and 15.3 on land degradation neutrality, and therefore data collected to measure them will contribute to other SDG goals.
Sustainability will be assessed at the level of a farm. The “one-out, all-out” principle will be used: to be considered sustainable, a farm will need to satisfy all of the criteria. In other words, all sub-indicators must be achieved at the farm level. The area of the farms that meet the criteria will be aggregated up to total the area under sustainable production within the country.
With 232 SDG indicators to measure, many of them new, countries face a daunting task in reporting progress in implementation of the 2030 Agenda. This indicator will be collected primarily through farm surveys, and supplemented by data from other sources, including remote sensing and environmental monitoring networks. Construction and monitoring of this indicator will be facilitated by open access to remote sensing and data collected through environmental monitoring networks. Countries will also be encouraged to provide open access to the results of farm surveys.
The next step in the process is to pilot test the proposed methodology in selected countries and seek approval of the methodology by the Inter Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goals (IAEG-SDGs) – the group tasked with developing and implementing the global indicator framework for the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda.
The indicators have been defined not around practices but as outcomes so that they are directly linked to policies. Through interventions in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, FAO and other international partners will continue working with countries to strive for a world where agriculture is increasingly productive and more sustainable.
 FAO. 2017. The Director-General’s Medium Term Plan 2018-21 and Programme of Work and Budget 2018-19. Rome.