FAO in North America

Measuring Progress towards Sustainable Agriculture

From left to right: Vimlendra Sharan (FAO), Amy Heyman (FAO), Leo Abruzzese (EIU), Xin Zhang (UMCES), Seth Shames (EcoAgriculture) and Tom Pesek (FAO)

21 June 2019, Washington, DC - There has been considerable discussion over the past 30 years on the definition and measurement of sustainable agriculture. According to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the performance of all sectors, including agriculture, needs to be assessed against the three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.

In order to understand different approaches to measuring sustainable agriculture, FAO North America convened a roundtable, which shared an intergovernmental, private sector, and academic perspective on the topic in a discussion moderated by Thomas Pesek, senior liaison officer at FAO North America.

 “FAO’s vision for sustainable agriculture is a world where food is nutritious and accessible for everyone, in which natural resources are managed in a way that maintains ecosystem functions to support current and future human needs,” said  Amy Heyman, economist in FAO’s strategic program for sustainable agriculture. Heyman shared the progress made since 2015 to build international consensus on a joint methodology to measure sustainable agriculture, a process that was country driven.

FAO is the custodian agency for 21 SDG indicators, of which indicator 2.4.1 specifically focuses on the “Proportion of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture.” Sub-indicators in the three dimensions of economic, social and environmental sustainability were included based on policy relevance, universality, international comparability and cost effectiveness. Global data collection happens through farm surveys with a suggested periodicity of 3 years. Going forward, FAO is looking forward to work with partners such as the World Bank, Gates Foundation and USAID under the 50 X 2030 initiative, which aims to improve the availability of timely and high-quality agricultural data. FAO is currently working on a tool to analyze tradeoffs and synergies between the different dimensions, and is preparing a report on the global Progress towards Sustainable Agriculture (PROSA).

Leo Abruzzese, Senior Global Advisor for Public Policy at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), presented the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), which measures the sustainability of food systems in 67 countries using three priority policy challenges: food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges. He highlighted that the FSI is more focused on the policy environment than the sustainability outcomes as a measure of food sustainability, since their research showed that countries with robust policy environments have more sustainable food systems. Abruzzese also emphasized that, while progress on some of the sustainability dimensions will require systemic change that will take time, there are challenges like food loss and waste that can be immediately tackled. He concluded that even high-performing developed countries have challenges that need to be addressed to maximize long-term food sustainability.

Xin Zhang, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), presented the Sustainable Agricultural Matrix (SAM). The matrix aims to help track a country’s performance on sustainable agriculture based on 20 indicators, which look at environmental, social, and economic dimensions with already available data. Professor Zhang noted that whether there are clear tradeoffs or synergies between the economic and environmental dimensions depends on the context, and that countries can learn from positive examples that create synergies between these three dimensions. Measuring the performance of sustainable agriculture at the farm and national level is important, especially with complex dynamics of markets, consumer behavior and policy, more resource efficient technology does not necessarily lead to a reduction of water depletion, nitrogen pollution and deforestation she stated. Professor Zhang emphasized that “No country has been able to move all its indicators into a safe sustainability zone, meaning that every country needs to improve aspects of sustainable agriculture.”

Seth Shames, Director Policy and Markets at EcoAgriculture Partners, emphasized that questions of scale matter. Between the farm and national level, it is important to consider the landscape level to understand sustainable agriculture.

Overall, the event highlighted the complementary ways of measuring progress towards sustainable agriculture through the SDG indicator 2.4.1 at the international and intergovernmental level, the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) with a focus on enabling policies, and the Sustainable Agricultural Matrix (SAM) that uses academic rigor in the analysis of the information. Achieving food security requires an integrated approach that addresses all forms of malnutrition, the productivity and incomes of food producers, resilience of food systems, and the sustainable use of biodiversity and natural resources. Data being used by decision-makers is a key driver of transformation across all sectors, enabling governments to achieve national policy objectives.