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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Look to the land: why agriculture is key for sustainable development

Tim Christophersen

17 Dec 2015


By Tim Christophersen, UNEP | 17 December 2015

Agricultural production is essential for our societies to flourish. It offers food for all of us, and employment for one in three persons world-wide. Most of our freshwater and a great share of our energy supply is used in agriculture. However, while human population more than doubled in the space of just two generations, our planet and the land available for agriculture are not expanding in size.

Agricultural productivity is reaching a plateau world-wide, our arable land is becoming a scarce resource, and yet our population continues to grow. We cannot simply continue with a ‘business as usual’ answer to this challenge: to destroy ever more forests and other natural habitats to produce more food and biofuel. Instead, we need a new approach to land-use which is climate friendly, more productive, and increases the resilience of ecosystems and of societies.

We are currently far from such a sustainable approach. The world is losing about 12 million hectares of arable land annually, an area large enough to sustain the production of 20 million tons of grain. Land degradation and global demand for food are pushing agriculture into new areas including natural habitats. More than 3 million hectares of forests are being cleared each year, mostly for agricultural expansion in the tropics. The loss of forests in turn affects hundreds of millions of people in rural areas, including many of the world’s poorest people, who depend on them for food, wood energy, shelter, fibre and livelihoods. We seem to be stuck in a vicious circle of environmental degradation, accelerating climate change, and increasing pressure on the remaining land area. How can we turn this into a virtuous cycle of improving environmental conditions, better ecosystem services and higher quality of life?

The Sustainable Development Goals or ‘SDGs’ offer the blueprint for a comprehensive solution to our current land-use dilemma. The 17 Goals are part of the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ to tackle hunger, poverty, inequality, pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, and to provide universal access to energy, water, sanitation and education. The Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 targets apply to all countries – not just to the developing world – and they put the environment at the center of policy attention. They offer us a historic opportunity to shape development and environmental policy for the next 15 years for a more sustainable use of productive land and natural habitat. The Sustainable Development Goals encourage all countries to take a holistic, ‘all-of-government’ approach to domestic investments and budget decisions, potentially leading to transformational ways in which we restore and sustainably use our natural environment.

Currently, government policies on land-use are often contradictory and do not follow a sustainable development pathway. For example, many government subsidies are locking us into business as usual and send contradicting signals about the sustainable use of land: countries are spending upwards of 500 billion USD each year to support the use of fossil fuels, and the expansion of agriculture is fuelled by additional subsidies in the area of 200 billion USD per year globally. In past years, Brazil and Indonesia spent over 100 times more in subsidies to industries that cause deforestation than they received in international conservation aid to prevent it. The impact of such subsidies on agricultural productivity and other policy areas is often poorly understood, and they usually have unintended consequences.

Some countries are already taking a more holistic approach to fiscal policy. India has recently introduced a new system for distributing tax revenue from the federal level to the states, and has assigned a 7.5 per cent weight to forest cover in the allocation formula of revenue going to states. This fiscal incentive is expected to deliver 6 billion USD a year to Indian states for the conservation, restoration and better management of forests. It works out to roughly 120 USD per hectare per year and is competitive with agriculture production earnings, thus providing economically viable support to states seeking to grow their agricultural output without clearing forests. In another example, Ecuador has recently analyzed its agricultural subsidies and is bringing them in line with the country’s strong commitment to halt deforestation under their REDD+ efforts.

New and effective policies and measures which can simultaneously tackle many of the Sustainable Development Goals can be inexpensive, if they are well designed. In the case of India, the new tax distribution scheme was revenue neutral and will have positive impacts on human health, access to water, and biodiversity conservation. In other cases, bringing agriculture and forestry in line with national climate action and biodiversity targets will carry costs. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated in 2014 that 30 billion USD per year are needed to halve deforestation, restore degraded forest landscapes, and ensure that all forests globally are managed. This might sound like a lot, but it is only 0.04 per cent of the global economy, or just 2 per cent of world military expenditure each year – a small price to pay to ensure that our societies can continue to expand and prosper, with food, energy and decent work for all.

The aim of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to build ‘the future we want’. As a first step towards this sustainable future, we need to increase our understanding and respect for the global planetary boundaries. The health of our soil, the quality of our water and air, and the stability of our climate are the very foundations of sustainable development. Agricultural landscapes are at the heart of maintaining the delicate balance between sustainable use and environmental degradation. An integrated approach to managing productive and resilient landscapes and to restore the health of our land and soil is key to achieving the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

About the author:

Tim Christophersen coordinates the activities of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on forests and climate change and he is a member of the UN-REDD Programme Management Group (

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