What Role does Agriculture Play within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Addressing global climate change has become a central issue across industrial sectors, international institutions, and continents. The development of the SDGs represents a consensus towards more sustainable means of living, particularly for agriculture, which affects many facets of human life.


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Why agriculture is important for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The Global Goals, or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were developed in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda aims to lessen poverty, health, issues, lack of education, and reduced economic growth amid global climate change.

To address these issues, SDGs encompass 17 goals and 169 targets representing a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all". As the goals are interconnected, many sectors and industries affect a range of issues within the SDGs, including agriculture, which plays a fundamental role in achieving the SDGs by 2030 as planned by the UN.

Food production has its own SDG (#2), which calls to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” However, achieving other SDGs cannot be accomplished without a productive and sustainable agricultural sector.

For instance, food production is directly linked to other challenges targeted by SDGs including clean water and sanitation (#6), affordable and clean energy (#7), decent work and economic growth (#8), responsible consumption and production (#12). Indirectly, agriculture also impacts the community and income-based SDGs addressing poverty (#1), education (#4), gender equality (#5), climate action (#13), and life on land (#15).

This was discussed in detail in a 2018 study by Nhemachena et al, who applied indices from 5 SDGs (#s 1, 2, 6, 7, and 15) to develop an agriculture-related SDG composite index for countries across Southern Africa. The composite index varied between zero (0 = poor performance) and 100 (best possible performance) and showed that the best performing countries (Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and South Africa) in the assessment recorded high scores in SDGs 1, 2 and 7. Contrastingly, 3 countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar) that performed poorly for SDG 1 and 2 also had the lowest scores on the overall agriculture-related SDG composite.

The authors concluded that improving the contribution of agriculture to SDGs may include investing more resources in priority areas for each agriculture-related SDG depending on baseline country conditions. However, the absence of data for certain countries limited further analyses in the study, and authors advocate for better data collection in understudied areas to allow for broader application of indices to inform policymaking.

Addressing SDGs in agriculture on broad and local scales

Since their inception in 2015, SDGs have generated broad scientific interest that have examined how to effectively address each objective. For instance, Whitcraft et al. (2019) suggested that remotely sensed Earth observations (EO) from satellites of agricultural production could help collect and analyze data to support SDGs. Specifically, efforts from the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM) Initiative provides insights on changes in agricultural production and land use that support several of the 17 SDGs.

Authors discuss how GEOGLAM contributes particularly to Zero Hunger (SDG #2), water usage (# 6), responsible consumption and production (# 12), climate action (# 13), life on land (# 15), and global partnerships for sustainable development (# 17). Large-scale spatial information combined with long-term datasets from tools such as satellite monitoring could therefore be useful to find areas of importance to attaining SDGs.

On a finer scale, research efforts have also attempted to find out how to improve SDG progress on local, community-centered levels. In a 2017 study, Fleming et al. considered the perception of SDGs from a Tasmanian aquaculture company (Tessel) in order to ascertain the motivations and barriers to work towards implementing the goals outlined by the SDGs.

Researchers interviewed stakeholders that were previously unaware of the SDGs and analyzed responses using the Values-Rules-Knowledge framework of decision making. Findings showed that company-based and personal values were key to driving positive responses to the SDGs and that awareness of the SDGs resulted in the company recognizing the gains from engaging with other SDG goals that did not impact aquaculture (such as health and wellbeing).

Understanding community-level responses to SDGs could therefore be beneficial to implementing goals directly related to their income and livelihood whilst also progressing the attainment of additional goals. Working in tandem across spatiotemporal and human scales will ultimately accelerate the progress towards attaining SDGs.  

Agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals

Future of agriculture within SDGs

With the continued growth of the global population, agriculture will maintain a central place in the progress towards attaining SDGs. The implementation of effective targets based upon monitoring and assessment-based empirical evidence will be at the core of the SDGs alongside community-centered perspectives.

Studies have also found ways to improve the success of SDGs and how best to accelerate progress using the plans developed since 2015. In a study by Scown et al., (2020), the authors highlight the benefits associated with improved financial support in agriculture within the SDG framework.

The study focuses on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) spending in Europe, which is a partnership between agricultural stakeholders and society. CAP originated in 1962 and promotes jobs in agricultural-related sectors across Europe. Every year since 2006, an estimated 54 billion euros is spent every year from the public fund, and authors of the study advocate that this fund should increase in order to better support SDGs.

The study advocates that CAP payments could be redistributed from supporting income in regions where farming is already profitable to supporting farmers to implement environment- and climate-friendly practices. This would allow for better distribution of resources and to enhance productivity in areas that need it the most.

The reliance of SDGs on capital and institutional interest demonstrates that improving living conditions around the world sustainably requires a consortium of international efforts. If changes are not implemented quickly enough, sectors such as agriculture will experience drastic reductions in yield causing food insecurity affecting many communities.


  • Agricultural sustainability | www.fao.org. (2022). FAO. https://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/indicators/241/en/
  • Fleming, A., Wise, R. M., Hansen, H., & Sams, L. (2017). The sustainable development goals: A case study. Marine Policy, 86, 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.09.019
  • Nhemachena, C., Matchaya, G., Nhemachena, C., Karuaihe, S., Muchara, B., & Nhlengethwa, S. (2018). Measuring Baseline Agriculture-Related Sustainable Development Goals Index for Southern Africa. Sustainability, 10(3), 849. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10030849
  • Scown, M. W., Brady, M. V., & Nicholas, K. A. (2020). Billions in Misspent EU Agricultural Subsidies Could Support the Sustainable Development Goals. One Earth, 3(2), 237–250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.011
  • Whitcraft, A. K., Becker-Reshef, I., Justice, C. O., Gifford, L., Kavvada, A., & Jarvis, I. (2019). No pixel left behind: Toward integrating Earth Observations for agriculture into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals framework. Remote Sensing of Environment, 235, 111470. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rse.2019.111470

Further Reading

Last Updated: May 10, 2022

James Ducker

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James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  


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