The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) describe a vision of what 2030 ought to look like. Agriculture will contribute directly to 8 of these goals, and indirectly to all of them. Profound changes will be needed in order to eradicate poverty, improve food and nutrition security, and support rural development while protecting the environment. Business as usual is not an option if we wish to meet these targets simultaneously.

On May 31, 2016, SDSN members and additional stakeholders met to discuss agriculture and food systems within the context of the Agricultural Transformation Pathways initiative and launch their 2016 Report. The Agricultural Transformation Pathways uses a method that is similar to the one employed in the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) — people must first work together to figure out the ideal outcome and then work backwards to figure out the steps necessary to get there. Rather than try to forecast the future, one starts from the future and backcasts the pathway. Because the world and our ability to understand it is always changing, these pathways must also flexible and adaptable to local contexts, while also making sure that all action is consistent with global targets. Global cooperation is needed to ensure, in the words of Sébastien Treyer of IDDRI, that we do not “export our sustainability crisis.”

(Click to expand image) Description of backcasting approach in the initiative. This approach is problem-solving oriented and enables the setting of priorities, ranking of solutions, and identifying the steps and their sequence that need to be taken to reach a desired outcome.

Unlike the DDPP, which aims to keep global temperature rise within 2°C, sustainable agricultural transformation lacks a single global target. Instead, figuring out the relevant indicators will require first analyzing the current and unique situation of any given country to figure out the main challenges and priorities. However, it is also important to consider how, why, and to what extent the outcomes of these cases could be applied to other countries to allow comparability among countries. The Agricultural Transformation Pathways initiative balances these two needs, and allows each country to gain a more complete understanding of its own targets, roadblocks, and levers to overcome roadblocks, while bearing in mind a global picture. Moving forward, the team plans to build a learning platform where concrete knowledge can be shared to foster global cooperation.

In order to have a useful model, it’s important to look at concrete examples of countries and the tradeoffs they must balance between different factors and outcomes. In addition, patterns in human behavior give researchers useful insights. For example, as a country gets more wealthy, its people tend to consume more meat, and meat production impacts land and water resource use. Irge Olga Aujouannet from the WBCSD posed questions including what level of meat consumption is possible in a sustainable future? What kinds of social, economic, and political shifts will have to take place to reach a sustainable future? And how will the pathways available in a country like Uruguay, whose people have the highest per capita beef consumption of any country, differ from the pathways available in a country like India?

Each country has a unique political, historical, cultural, economic, and environmental landscape. Each country in this particular study was chosen opportunistically—because there were interested researchers there. So policymakers, researchers, and interested parties should be careful to not see these research findings as categorically prescriptive. More data and research is needed to examine additional case studies, and the presenters welcome inquiries from interested research institutes who wish to join the initiative.