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Measure of agricultural sustainability set to have defining impact on SDGs

23/01/2019

The ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda to “end all forms of poverty”, “achieve sustainable development in all three dimensions” and “leave no one behind” has been widely applauded. But, three years into the SDGs era, hunger is on the rise, poverty now affects almost half the world and progress to combat climate change is slow. To get back on track, attention is turning to ways of quantifying what it means to be sustainable, a measurement pivotal to Agenda 2030’s call for the “transformation” of societies and economies.

A major advance in addressing the key question of how to measure sustainability has come in the development of a new indicator for agriculture. The indicator 2.4.1, which monitors sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices of target 2.4*, is now close to launch after countries recently agreed on a methodology. SDG 2, End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture is considered by many to be a goal with transformative potential.

We spoke to FAO senior officer Jean-Marc Faurès, who has spearheaded work in developing indicator SDG 2.4.1, on how close measuring sustainability in agriculture is to becoming a reality, and what it might mean for efforts to create a stamp of sustainability that can be applied across the 2030 Agenda.   

* Target 2.4. 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

What exactly does SDG indicator 2.4.1 measure?

It measures agricultural sustainability at different levels: farm, region, country and, when data is available, at global level. Given that sustainability is a multidimensional concept, the indicator is made up of 11 sub-indicators that measure the performance of agriculture across the three dimensions of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. A ‘traffic light’ approach is used to give a score to each sub-indicator: green (sustainable), red (unsustainable), and yellow (acceptable).

Example of the traffic-light approach involving the 11 sub-indicators of SDG 2.4.1. Red indicates where policy efforts should particularly be focused

In terms of achieving sustainable development, how does this indicator break new ground?

It is the first-ever standard that measures agricultural performance across the three dimensions of sustainability. The term ‘sustainable agriculture’ has been around for many years, and there have been lots of approaches developed to measure it. While these approaches share common features, no single one has, until now, been universally adopted as a standard for global reporting.

The big change with this indicator is that agriculture performance will no longer be measured through productivity alone. In addition to crop yield or livestock productivity, other variables are now part of the measurement. They include, for instance, soil health, biodiversity conservation and wage rates on the farm, which offer a far more nuanced and sophisticated way of assessing agriculture performance. In so doing, governments will be able to look beyond production towards broader goals of poverty reduction, environmental conservation and food security.

How challenging has the process been to ensure governments are able to collect the data?

As the indicator is new, it will take time and effort for countries to collect the data. From the outset, great care was taken to minimize costs for countries. Among the instruments proposed for collecting data, we chose farm surveys, as they are likely to be the most cost-effective. Farm surveys are already being used by many countries, so data can be collected simply by adding a few questions to an existing agricultural survey. FAO is now developing tools and training programmes to help countries collect and process the data.

How will governments be able to translate evidence into policy action?

All 11 sub-indicators of SDG 2.4.1. have a clear policy dimension. In fact, they have been designed in a practical way to help shape national policies. The traffic light approach helps to identify which of the sub-indicators is performing in an unsustainable way. So, for example, if agriculture performs badly in terms of water use, meaning that too much water is being used in a wasteful manner, policy actions should focus on ways to reduce water consumption while maintaining good levels of productivity.  

While the term has been around for some time, sustainability has until now been a rather vague concept in terms of measurement. Can the same criteria for 2.4.1. be applied to measuring sustainability beyond agriculture?

The methodology for 2.4.1 was developed and endorsed following a comprehensive consultation process that involved statisticians and experts from many different disciplines. Agreeing on an approach to measuring sustainability means striking the right balance between cost-effectiveness and the requirements dictated by our (imperfect) knowledge of sustainability processes. Because of its complexity, sustainability can be interpreted in many different sub-dimensions. The challenge was to agree on a reasonable set of sub-indicators that capture the most important features associated with sustainable agriculture. This same approach could easily be applied to sectors beyond agriculture.

There is a growing consciousness for sustainability among the world’s general public. Is it possible that this indicator could be used and adapted by governments and retailers to create a seal of sustainability to inform consumers’ spending decisions?

There have already been lots of initiatives, both private and public, in moving towards a measurement for sustainable agriculture. They often focus on environmental or social dimensions, or a combination of both. All these initiatives have the potential to contribute to adopting more sustainable practices. By offering a common stick to measure progress, SDG indicator 2.4.1 can help strengthen these initiatives and mainstream efforts towards a common formula. It’s very important to understand that there are trade-offs to manage. None of the 11 sub-indicators is more or less important than the others. The objective, rather, is to ensure that they all move progressively towards greater levels of sustainability: less of the ‘red’ and more of the ‘green’ [among traffic lights].

What are the next steps towards universal application for the indicator?

The indicator has just been upgraded from Tier III to Tier II. This means that the methodology proposed by FAO has been formally approved. But as this is a new indicator, there are no readily available datasets in countries. Work has now begun to develop the tools countries need to collect data. Pilot projects are currently taking place in countries to strengthen the data collection process. At the same time, FAO is developing training material and programmes to strengthen national capacities. The objective now is to reach universal application so that the indicator can be upgraded to Tier I as quickly as possible.

SDG 2.4.1 is one of 21 indicators for which FAO is UN custodian agency, supporting countries to monitor progress towards achieving the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda. 

Discover more about FAO’s work on SDG indicators here.

  

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