The Contested Discourse of Sustainable Agriculture,

Date01 January 2019
Published date01 January 2019
AuthorDesmond McNeill
The Contested Discourse of Sustainable
Desmond McNeill
University of Oslo
The article critically analyses how the transformative ambition of the SDGs may be threatened in the process of moving from
vision, through goals and targets to indicators. This is exemplif‌ied by a case study concerning sustainable agriculture, and
most specif‌ically indicator 2.4.1, where two contrasting approaches industrial agriculture and agro-ecology stand in opposi-
tion, each with its associated discourse and interests. The process is analysed in great detail, noting the complex interplay of
political and technical considerations. FAO has played a central role in establishing a compromise with regard to the wording
of indicator 2.4.1 which papers over the disagreements and does not explicitly promote either of the two competing
approaches. And the organisation has facilitated a technical process which, instead of one simple indicator, has led to a com-
posite, multidimensional version with nine sub-indicators, as a result of which it has been relegated to Tier IIIstatus, implying
that it will not be used for global monitoring purposes. The article concludes that owing to a combination of political and
technical factors the transformative potential of the SDGs may, in this instance, be lost.
The simplicity of the MDG indicator and monitoring
framework is one of the main reasons why the
monitoring exercise was effective (UN, 2015a).
The primary tension, if not conf‌lict, in seeking to achieve
sustainable development is between maximising economic
growth and protecting the environment. And one of the
sectors in which this is most evident is agriculture, where
the battle-linesare rather clearly drawn. In brief, two major
approaches may be distinguished which I will, for simplic-
ity, refer to as industrial agricultureand agro-ecology. The
former, also known as productionist(Lang and Barling,
2013), tends to promote large-scale farming and place
emphasis on increasing productivity through, for example,
greater use of fertilisers and pesticides. The latter argues
that such methods have serious negative environmental
consequences and are ultimately unsustainable. This article
traces the fate of these competing approaches as mani-
fested in the process of moving from the sustainable devel-
opment goals and targets through to the selection of
indicators; and more precisely indicator 2.4.1: Proportion of
agricultural area under productive and sustainable agricul-
ture. At the time of writing, this indicator is classif‌ied as Tier
III, implying that it will not be used for global monitoring
purposes. A request to reclassify it as Tier II was submitted
to the meeting of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on
SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) on 1114 November 2017, in
their capacity as Indicator Custodian Agency, but this was
rejected. As a result owing to a combination of political
and technical factors the transformative potential of the
SDGs may, in this instance, be lost.
The ambition of those promoting agro-ecology is to
replace the dominant productionist food regime promoted
by industrial agriculture by one that is very different. In this,
they confront not only vested interests but also certain
taken-for-granted claims about the merits, even inevitability,
of industrial agriculture. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
Development sets out a vision for the future, in which con-
cern for the environment occupies a central role. This vision
then becomes translated into concrete terms: into goals, tar-
gets and indicators. And here the issue of how to def‌ine
sustainable agriculture becomes crucial. The fact that the
term is explicitly used might seem to indicate support for
agro-ecology. But advocates of industrial agriculture claim
that their approach is sustainable, so that conf‌lict between
the two approaches is simply papered over.
Industrial agriculture is currently the dominant international
approach and, I suggest, the SDG process will not serve as an
effective challenge so long as the relevant indicator can be
interpreted to support both competing approaches. And
there is little evidence to suggest that this situation is chang-
ing; rather the reverse, as I shall seek to show. In this article I
trace in some detail the SDG process from vision, through
goals and targets, to indicators drawing mainly on the huge
volume of information available on UN websites, which
include not only minutes of meetings, documents submitted,
etc. but also the results of numerous consultations. This infor-
mation is supplemented by meetings and email contact with
a few well-informed individuals, some within FAO.
The situation in mid-2018 is that instead of only one, or
maximum two, indicators, a multidimensional indicator has
been proposed, as shown in Table 1. But this proposal has
not been accepted by the international body with the
authority to approve the indicators, the IAEG-SDGs. It
remains in the category Tier III, meaning that it does not
yet have an internationally recognized methodology nor
©2019 University of Durham and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Global Policy (2019) 10:Suppl.1 doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12603
Global Policy Volume 10 . Supplement 1 . January 2019
Special Issue Article

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