27 Jul 2018

The importance of farmers’ voice in international policymaking

A commentary on United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

written by Mr. Dave Velde, WFO Vice-President


In mid-July, the United Nations hosted a High-Level Political Forum in New York to review the world’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 goals for the world set by the United Nations in 2015. Stakeholders from governments, non-governmental organizations, and corporations engaged in conversation over what is working and what might not be working towards meeting the SDGs. And so, as agriculture plays a significant role in most of the goals, I participated in the event on behalf of WFO to ensure the collective voice of family farmers from across the world was involved in these important discussions.

While the range of topics spanned from hunger to poverty to peace, it was the conversation surrounding water use that struck me as particularly illustrative of the importance of including farmers’ voices in international policymaking.

As the UN states, access to safe water and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems are essential to human health and to environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Access to safe water, and the sustainable management of this water make up Goal 6 of the SDGs, and for good reason: more than half of Earth’s population is projected to live in a water-stressed region by 2050.

Central to this sustainability is agriculture’s use of freshwater systems. Sixty-nine percent of the world’s freshwater usage is for agriculture, followed by 19 percent for households and 12 percent for industry. If international policymakers are to ensure freshwater is safe and available to our most vulnerable populations, agriculture will play an essential role.

Moving forward, policymakers and consumers are going to require increased sustainability measures on the part of farmers. This is a trend that has been gaining momentum for the past couple of decades and is sure to continue. What is most important at this point in time is for farmers to have a seat at the table, working with policymakers and engaging with consumers. These stakeholders must understand how sustainability measures impact farming operations, what can improve the efficacy of on-farm sustainability measures, and what tremendous work farmers are already doing to improve the sustainability of our food systems and ecosystems.

For too long, farmers have been represented by industry, rather than farmers themselves, during national and international policymaking. And what we’ve seen as a result of this misrepresentation is that despite increased regulatory pressures from governing bodies, investment in agriculture has fallen sharply. The UN cites the global agriculture orientation index — defined as agriculture’s share of government expenditure divided by the sector’s share of gross domestic product (GDP) — as having fallen from 0.38 in 2001 to 0.24 in 2013 and to 0.21 in 2015. This trend must reverse quickly if farmers are to be adequately supported in their progress towards feeding a quickly growing world population. And that starts with farmers having a seat at the table.

Additionally, farmers are going to need to be on the cutting edge of innovation and be willing to meet the sustainability demands that are required to achieve our shared SDGs. Going back to the example of water use, there are a number of best management practices that farmers can adopt to improve the quantity and quality of our freshwater supply, provided they are incentivized or made financially viable. Conservation practices and precision agriculture offer farmers better soil health and input cost reduction while decreasing soil erosion, manure runoff, and other problems that results in less water or poor water quality.

If given the opportunity, agriculture can make tremendous strides towards meeting the UN SDGs. Farmers, consumers and policymakers must work cooperatively to advance innovative approaches that ensure the sustainability of our food systems and ecosystems.