For sustainable growth, count on agriculture

by Morgane Danielou, Farming First | Farming First
Thursday, 28 November 2013 14:48 GMT

A farmer dries newly harvested corn cobs near her field in Zhuliang village in Qingzhou, Shandong province, China, Sept. 27, 2013. REUTERS/China Daily

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The next set of global development goals must recognise that agriculture plays a key role in reducing poverty

The world is almost ready to call time on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Happily, some can be considered achieved – the goal to halve the number of those living without access to safe drinking water was even met early.

But the number of people still living without clean water and sanitation (780 million) and the number of people who go to bed hungry (842 million) still make for uncomfortable headlines. Forecasts of swelling populations, stretched natural resources and a changing climate all predict the situation will get increasingly difficult to control in the near future.

Enter the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - designed to pick up where the MDGs left off. This week Farming First has been at the United Nations in New York, participating in the Open Working Group that is discussing these SDGs.

These initial talks have been underway for some months, but are only the preparatory phase to the actual negotiations that will need to take place between governments, starting in 2014. 

One of the main challenges already surfacing is the ability to find goals that are universal; that will require participation from all states. Major donors such as the EU and U.S. find themselves in an entirely different situation than during the formation of the MDGs.  

Previously, they did not have to consider how the goals applied to them, only how they could support developing countries in achieving them. This may lead to stalled progress in coming months.

Discussions have made clear, however, that the SDGs will be more sophisticated than their predecessors and look across interconnected sectors for more integrated solutions. For example, how can we make sure enough food is produced to eradicate hunger, and ensure environmental sustainability at the same time? Shouldn’t goals regarding health be linked to the provision of nutritious food?


The buzzword on the ground has been “growth”. This is indeed the key to poverty reduction. Yet we have forced the question: how can we ensure growth occurs in the right places, and reaches those who are in most need of resilient livelihoods?

Research has shown that growth in agriculture is twice as effective as any other sector at reducing poverty. The logic is simple: a community supported by a strong farm sector will produce enough nutritious food to feed its population and generate income through selling produce.

It is therefore essential that agriculture is recognised in the SDGs as a key component for sustainable growth. This is what Farming First is calling for in New York this week.

As we look into the not-so-distant future, many factors will hinder a sustainable future for food and farming. Let’s take 2030 as a benchmark - the year these new SDGs are likely to expire. If business continues as usual, our planet will be under incredible pressure, as Farming First’s brand new infographic, “Food and Farming in 2030”, explores.

By 2030, there will be an extra 1.5 billion people on the planet, the majority in developing countries. Distribution of wealth will have altered greatly, with India and China representing around 40 percent of global middle-class consumption. Both factors will have serious implications for food demand and the composition of global diets.

In terms of natural resources, global demand for water will have increased by 50 percent in 2030. Agriculture alone will demand more water than the planet can supply sustainably, before industrial and domestic use is even considered. Biodiversity could decrease by around 10 percent, due to infrastructure, agriculture and a changing climate.

Finally, climate change will have a severe effect on crop yield growth and food prices, which could be driven up by as much as 90 percent in some cases. Growth rates of wheat, maize and rice are expected to decrease by 13 percent, 12 percent and 23 percent respectively.

But it is not all bad news – agriculture actually has the potential to mitigate up to 7.5 percent of total global greenhouse gas emission, depending on how high carbon is priced, and how quickly agricultural productivity measures are adopted.

With these projections in mind, it is essential that agriculture is considered a central component of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is not too late to divert from the negative forecasts. Only by permitting agriculture to play a significant role in a new green development vision for the world can we ensure that this possible future does not become a reality.

Morgane Danielou is co-chair of Farming First, a global coalition that promotes programmes and activities that further sustainable agricultural development worldwide.

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