To meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to change our agricultural practices. There is a lot of debate about how to accomplish this. Is it more promising to make mainstream agriculture gradually more sustainable, or to promote alternative systems like organic farming?
In a recent article in Nature Sustainability, eleven international experts including myself argue that organic farming, although not a silver bullet, can drive sustainability in global agriculture to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This blog is a summary of the key ideas from the article.
Organic agriculture and other transformative systems have proven sustainability benefits, including improved soil quality, enhanced biodiversity, reduced pollution and increased farm incomes. But in many contexts, they result in lower yields so their sustainability per unit product is questioned. Intensive conventional systems can be highly productive but have substantial negative consequences including biodiversity loss, soil erosion, pollution, reduced human health and low farm incomes. Powerful agribusiness and food corporations have vested interests in continuing the conventional agroindustrial model and in perpetuating ‘Feed the World’ narratives.
The SDGs offer an opportunity to reconcile these divisions by focusing on the sustainability contributions of different farming approaches and the policies that help to accelerate the required transition.
Successful transformative systems, such as organic, push–pull and evergreen agriculture, offer inspirational examples and an innovation space for transformation because they are pursuing a radically different approach. Conversely, incremental approaches, such as precision farming and reduced-tillage, developed in conventional agriculture inspire transformative systems to further improve their performance.
Agriculture and food-related policies play a crucial role both in perpetuating unsustainable systems and in triggering more sustainable ones, since they greatly influence farming and business practices, costs, prices and consumer choice. We identify four important groups of policy interventions (see the chart below) that can synergistically transition our food system to a more sustainable one:
(i) Supporting transformative systems through a combination of push, pull and enabling measures, while improving their performance. Given that the conversion costs of alternative farming systems can be quite high — including higher labor requirements and the need for increased knowledge and training — economic incentives and technical advice are crucial to enhance adoption by farmers. At the same time, the performance of these systems should be improved further, particularly in terms of yields, water management and consumer accessibility.
(ii) Boosting the market demand for sustainable products. It can be done by raising consumer awareness on the linkages between agriculture, environment, health and social wellbeing, and by enhancing the commitment of retailers and caterers to offer such products.
(iii) Encouraging incremental improvements in mainstream agriculture and food systems. This approach could stimulate producers to enhance efficiency of critical practices, substitute unsustainable practices with more sustainable ones or redesign components of their production system to improve their overall profitability under a reformed policy framework.
(iv) Raising legal requirements and industry norms to rule out particularly unsustainable practices, such as using highly hazardous pesticides or clearing primary forests.
The shift from competing narratives to a collaborative strategy for reaching the SDGs has already started. UN institutions are recognizing the role of agroecology as a science, a practice and a social movement that contributes to making agriculture and food systems more sustainable. With the concept of Organic 3.0, the global organic umbrella organization IFOAM — Organics International (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) places new emphasis on how organic agriculture can contribute to the wider adoption of sustainable practices. Recently, scientists assessed sustainable intensification initiatives worldwide and estimated that 29% of all farms are practicing some form of redesigned systems of sustainable intensification on 9% of global agricultural land. Adoption of such systems may soon be approaching a tipping point to be globally transformative.
Some laudable policy efforts have been made over the past decade to move agriculture toward sustainability. For example, the 2013 reform of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) linked 30% of its direct payments to so-called greening measures including minimum crop rotation requirements and maintenance of permanent grassland. Passage of the 2019 US Farm Bill at US$867 billion provides some research funds for organic farming, promotional funds for local farmers markets, and money for farmers to strengthen conservation efforts.
However, given the trends in key indicators, such as greenhouse gas emissions or biodiversity loss, the pace of such reforms is insufficient for meeting the SDGs by 2030. Only if governments ensure that policies are coherently aligned with the SDGs will agriculture become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.
Successful implementation of a reformed and supportive policy context depends on societal debates and social movements that apply pressure to governments and institutions. Powerful vested interests, including global and national agribusiness corporations, food companies, and commodity groups, command ever greater market power and heavily influence policies. It will take a critical mass of scientists, farmers, policymakers, businesses and civil society organizations to align on a transformation agenda and pull these powerful players along to achieve the SDGs.
Aligning policies and negotiating sustainable pathways are lengthy processes hampered by diverging interests and world views. Transcending ideological barriers and vested interests while focusing agriculture and food policies on the SDGs needs to be at the top of the agenda in order to accelerate the necessary shift towards more sustainable food systems.