October 1, 2015

Guest Commentary – How are Farmers Going to Embrace the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Dan Kelley, Former Chairman of GROWMARK Inc
The defining difference between the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), being officially adopted this week, and the Millennium Development Goals that they are replacing is the equal role that developed nations will play in achieving them.
Sustainable consumption and production patterns and combating climate change are just as relevant in countries like the United States as they are in developing regions—just ask the farmers struggling against the drought in California.
Farmers like me stand at a unique cross-section of these 17 new SDGs. Farmers and other agricultural producers all over the earth have an important role in feeding humankind. Not only that, farming is a profession that can create decent jobs for all (Goal 8) and reduce poverty by boosting incomes of rural farmers (Goal 1). It is also one of the main enterprises that will benefit from the construction of resilient infrastructure (Goal 9) to withstand the shocks and stresses our ever-changing environment can bring.
On my farm in Illinois, we have been working to make our processes more sustainable for decades. Throughout the 20th century, government-supported and private research has given us some of the most effective seed, fertilizer, and pesticide technology available. During my lifetime I have seen corn yields on the same land increase from 125 bushels per acre to over 200 bushels per acre thanks to this scientific research. Maximizing production on our best soils has meant that we do not need to crop fragile land that may be forested or highly susceptible to erosion. We are also doing on-farm research to determine optimum amounts of nutrients to apply and maximize our economic returns. We believe in the 4Rs when applying nutrients- that means applying the right product, at the right rate and the right time, and in the right place.
One of the routes to helping the world’s farmers tackle several of the SDGs head on is going to be farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange, so that other regions can benefit from the advances we have been lucky enough to make.
Recently, I hosted a group from Uruguay, who came to learn more about American agricultural cooperatives.  They were board members of a cooperative that had been formed by combining ten smaller cooperatives. The main challenge they were facing was how to treat these different sized farming operations equitably.  They were concerned about how to sustain their cooperative, because many of the predecessor cooperatives had struggled financially—combining with others became the best option to providing service and products to their members.
We showed them how the GROWMARK system of federated cooperatives works, and shared that in order be successful, having great products and services is important, but having outstanding people in the organization is the key to success.  Technology is changing the way everyone functions and delivering knowledge effectively is what will sustain the cooperative form of business.  Understanding the need to maximize production while improving the environment will not only sustain agriculture, but the cooperative as well.
Farmers all over the world are experiencing the same difficulties relating to increasing their production whilst preserving the environment we all rely on. The Farming First collection of stories “The SDGs and Me” details the challenges and successes that ten farmers are facing, and how resilience in the face of a changing world is a concern held by those from Africa to the Americas.

For young Alpha, a dairy and poultry farmer in Kiambu, Kenya, access to information via the internet on how to stay resilient to natural shocks could be a game changer for his business. He has been getting online to find out as much as he can, but wishes that market prices and news on disease outbreaks were more readily available online. This information could go a long way to ensure Alpha’s farm remains productive even when disasters strike.



For Ismael in Nicaragua, sustainable water management has been the key to success. When he first took on his coffee farm, flooding left him and his fruit trees submerged. But thanks to a new piping system and some shallow wells he has dug out, business is now good. Ismael hopes that the SDGs are going to bring him more environmentally friendly practices that will protect his farm and save his money.



No matter where we are in the world, all us farmers stand ready to make progress on the SDGs, but each region is going to need highly specialized interventions to suit their needs. To read all ten farmer stories, visit “The SDGs and Me” page on the Farming First website.


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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