April 22, 2015

Guest Commentary - Agriculture: The Common Thread Connecting the Sustainable Development Goals

By Susan Carlson, Women’s Committee Chair, World Farmers Organisation and Farming First spokesperson
This year we have an incredible opportunity to shape the priority areas of the next fifteen years of global development, through the formation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We can make sure that the proven ways to tackle worldwide issues such as hunger, poverty and environmental sustainability feature high on the agenda. As a farmer, one sector is close to my heart that holds unparalleled potential to make the ambitious targets the United Nations is challenging us to reach, become a reality.
This week, I am joining the agriculture coalition Farming First in New York to meet with SDG negotiators to highlight how agriculture is the common thread that runs through many of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just those pertaining to hunger.
As the Chair of the Women’s Committee of the World Farmers Organisation, I spend a lot of time with women farmers all over the world who produce a vast proportion of our global food supply. So let’s begin with gender equality (goal five). We know that female farmers can produce up to 30 percent less than their male counterparts, mostly due to differences in their access and use of resources, and that bridging this gap could reduce global hunger by as much as 17 percent. But we also need to remember that farming is a business, and by boosting women’s yields, we will boost their income, having a knock-on effect on their nutrition (goal two), health (goal three), and their children’s education (goal four).

When it comes to the issue of saving water, both developed and developing countries are struggling to meet this challenge. Just this weekend California has implemented new emergency water conservation regulations. To sustainably manage water, we need to look at one of the sectors using and relying on the most water – agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for any given country the average withdrawal for agriculture is 59 percent with higher levels in the more arid regions of the world, even though it is important to note that much of the water used by farmers going back into the natural water cycle.
Nevertheless, channeling research and funding into initiatives that will reduce agriculture’s dependence on water is going to be a key component of reaching the Sustainable Development Goal on water (goal six). Countries that have adopted drip-irrigation are saving a lot of water; it is estimated that drip irrigation saves up to 60 percent more water than other methods.

Similarly taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (goal thirteen) cannot be discussed without mentioning agriculture, which is simultaneously the biggest culprit and biggest victim of climate change. If we look at this with a positive spin, we have a lot to gain from investing in agriculture that is “climate-smart” that helps farmers both adapt to, and mitigate climate change. In fact, it is estimated that every $1 invested in agriculture results in a reduction of 68kgC of emissions. 

These statistics build a strong case for agriculture’s role in achieving many of the United Nations’ targets, which we are bringing to the attention of negotiators and policymakers at the United Nations this week. Farming First has even produced a fully interactive online essay that explores “The Story of Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals,” packed with facts, infographics, videos and further resources to illustrate the profound impact that prioritising agricultural approaches to the SDGs could have.
We cannot hope to meet the Sustainable Development Goals unless agriculture’s role is fully understood. Investing in sustainable agriculture remains the best bet for fighting not only hunger but also poverty as well as managing the earth’s finite natural resources. So let’s bet on agriculture for the SDGs.

Explore Farming First’s new interactive essay “The Story of Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals for more on this topic.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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