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Agriculture and the Global Goals

How agriculture can drive progress across the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

Since the SDGs came into effect in January 2016, governments, businesses and communities across the world have committed to throwing their weight behind meeting the Global Goals.

Yet, it’s clear that progress towards achieving the SDGs is significantly off track. The current rate of progress is not sufficient to meet the goals.

Pockets of extreme poverty continue unabated. Global hunger is on the rise rather than falling. Gender inequality persists in holding women back.

Despite their huge contribution to feeding the world’s people and protecting the environment, rural communities are amongst those most likely to live in poverty and ill health, and on degraded land.

Urgent action is needed to bring the SDGs back on track. And sustainable farming needs to be central in that action.

Transforming agriculture and enabling rural communities to thrive is key to the success of many of the SDGs.


SDG 1: No poverty

The majority of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas in developing countries, and most are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.

If current trends continue, 240 million rural people will remain in extreme poverty by 2030. Progress has been slow but there is cause for optimism. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors.

Investing in agriculture is central to ending rural poverty.

SDG 2: Zero hunger

Of the 815 million undernourished people globally around half are smallholder farmers. Despite their enormous contribution to combating hunger, smallholders are disproportionately vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

The world is off track to end hunger, if progress continues at the current pace 385 million people will go to bed hungry in 2030. Yet, there remains huge potential to push up small-scale farmers' yields.

Higher incomes mean families can afford to buy more food, improving food security and nutrition for farmers.

SDG 3: Good health and well-being

Good health starts with good food. Food gives us energy and nutrients, which support our growth and development. It provides the fuel we need to move, learn and think, and ultimately lead full and active lives.

Agriculture plays a key role in preventing disease and improving health. Better farms improve families’ ability to produce, purchase and consume more food. Introducing crop varieties with improved vitamin content improves people’s intake of essential vitamins. Improving farmers’ incomes allows households to buy a range of nutritious foods.

SDG 4: Quality education

The average out-of-school rate worldwide is twice as high in rural areas compared to urban areas. Many farmers’ children miss out on school because their parents can’t afford school fees and essential school supplies such as uniforms or books.

Lack of access to adequate, nutritious food prevents students from concentrating during class and thriving academically.

By boosting rural incomes, agriculture helps more children access, and take full advantage of, an education.

SDG 5: Gender equality

Women make up around half of the total agricultural labour force in developing countries. Yet, life for female farmers isn’t easy.

Women don’t have the same rights or access to resources as men. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that if women were given the same access to economic and agricultural resources as men, they could increase their yields on their farms by 20-30% - which would, in turn, reduce the number of hungry people in the world by around 12-17%.

From involving women in the sale of produce at market, so that they can gain more financial independence, to providing crèche facilities at training sessions, so that mothers can attend and learn, gender-sensitive agriculture projects provide localised solutions to the challenges that female farmers face.

SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation

Globally, 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. If current water usage practices continue, the global demand for water is expected to increase by more than 50% by 2030, with agriculture alone requiring more than can be sustained even before domestic and industrial needs are met.

A lack of infrastructure and good governance makes lower income countries more vulnerable to water scarcity. Farmers are particularly vulnerable as droughts can destroy entire harvests, wiping out the livelihood of rural farmers.

Yet farmers have the potential to protect and manage local water resources by using low-cost water-saving technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and drought-tolerant seeds.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

The agriculture sector is the world’s largest industry, employing over a billion people. Many agricultural workers hold poorly paid jobs and struggle to eke out a living in the sector.

Smallholder-driven agriculture has the potential to supercharge economic development in developing countries. The World Bank has estimated that agriculture is about two to four times more effective in raising incomes amongst the poorest than growth from any sector.

SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

More than two-thirds of the population of poor countries work in agriculture, yet agriculture rarely makes up more than 30% of low income countries’ gross domestic profit. From the UK’s industrial revolution to modern day China, history shows that growth in agriculture tends to be closely followed by wider economic development.

Making agriculture work better triggers growth across whole economies.

SDG 10: Reduced inequality

Across all regions, rates of extreme poverty and food insecurity are higher in rural areas. Realising the SDGs' mission to leave “no one behind” requires reaching farmers living in remote areas.

Within rural areas, social inequalities drive and compound poverty. Gender, class and ethnicity affect people’s access to land, finance and agricultural resources. These obstacles impede disadvantaged groups from lifting themselves out of poverty.

SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

Two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. Urbanisation is most rapid in developing countries. This boom places an enormous demand on food producers.

Rising urban demand for food presents farmers with new marketing opportunities, but also fresh production challenges. Urbanisation creates a new demand for food while shrinking the amount of land and natural resources available for agriculture.

It’s impossible to create sustainable cities without a sustainable agriculture system in place to feed urban residents.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

One-third of all food is wasted. In developing countries food waste mainly happens at the start of the supply chain: 40% of developing country farmers’ losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels. Food waste hurts farmers’ incomes, the environment and global food security.

Waste stops goods from being sold, eating into farmers’ profits. Global food waste contributes roughly 8% of total man-made greenhouse gases. Saving a quarter of all the food that is currently lost or wasted would feed all people suffering from food insecurity.

SDG 13: Climate action

Few groups are more exposed to the effects of extreme weather than small-scale farmers, making their livelihoods and food security particularly vulnerable to climate change. At the same time, agriculture can make vital contributions to climate change mitigation efforts.

From managing land to protecting forests, rural communities deliver a wide range of environmental services that curb carbon emissions and protect the planet. Pioneering agricultural techniques can draw down carbon from the atmosphere while building farms’ resilience to weather extremes.

SDG 15: Life on land

Farmers in eastern Africa rely on healthy ecosystems to make a living. Soil erosion, deforestation and destruction of grazing lands are threatening their livelihoods.

The way farmers use land has far-reaching consequences, affecting communities well beyond their immediate vicinity. The preservation of soil, forests, grazing lands and water resources are all critical to national and global food security, poverty reduction and climate change mitigation.

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Most armed conflicts are concentrated in regions where people are reliant on agriculture. Food insecurity and poverty can be both a cause and consequence of conflict.

Conflict destroys farming and food systems, pushing millions of people into hunger in recent years. Food insecurity, degraded natural resources and rural poverty can also cause conflict, ranging from food riots to revolutions.

SDG 17: Partnership for the goals

The SDGs can only be realised if we work together to pioneer new ways of working, thinking and mobilising.

The world’s most remote rural communities are key to creating and developing new solutions to complicated global issues.

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