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Shifting Agricultural Subsidies Could Help Achieve the SDGs, Report Finds

By Roya Sabri
Agricultural subsidies and the SDGs

“End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” “Ensure gender equality and empower all women and girls.” “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.” These are a few of the aspirations member states are targeting by 2030 through the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Recent reports from the U.N., however, beg the question: Was 2030 a pipe dream?

Take Goal 13, which focuses on combating climate change: The report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month raised thousands of pages of red flags about our progress. Another report from the U.N. published this month puts the spotlight on the SDGs yet again. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N. Development Program and U.N. Environment Program open a report about food systems by stating: “With eight years remaining, we are falling far short of the trajectory needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” Authors cite speed and comprehensiveness as needed but lacking. 

In calling out lack of speedy and comprehensive action to reshape food systems in support of the SDGs, the U.N. agencies take aim at agricultural subsidies in particular. 

"Current support to agricultural producers worldwide works against the attainment of the SDGs, the targets of the Paris Agreement and our common future,” the report’s forward reads. “This support is biased towards measures that are harmful and unsustainable for nature, climate, nutrition and health, while disadvantaging women and other smallholder farmers in the sector."

Agricultural subsidies are important: Redirect them in support of the SDGs

Assessing support for agricultural producers in 88 nations, the U.N. report places global agricultural subsidies at $540 billion a year, or 15 percent of total agricultural production value. The agencies contend that over two-thirds of this support is “price-distorting and largely harmful to the environment.” They estimate the value of these subsidies could increase to $1.8 trillion a year by 2030. 

Sugar, beef, milk and rice are some of the most subsidized commodities in the world, the report outlines — and all of these products are either nutrient-poor or carbon-intensive, if not both. Authors calculate that eliminating agricultural subsidies entirely could mean avoiding 11.3 million tons of carbon equivalent emissions by 2030, but they warn that the costs to farmer incomes and food prices would only exacerbate poverty and undernourishment — essentially supporting one SDG while sacrificing many others. 

In short: Governments need to redirect financial assistance — and the U.N. report outlines six steps to do it. These include: estimate the support already provided to agricultural producers, identify and estimate the impact of this support, design an approach and reforms to repurpose support in more productive directions, estimate the impact of the new strategy, review and refine the strategy, implement it, and monitor outcomes. 

The action items the U.N. agencies pose for governments underscore that simply eliminating agricultural subsidies won't work. Funds must be redirected for governments to reap the benefits and for sustainable agricultural systems, such as regenerative agriculture, to grow. 

Repurposing agricultural support “can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), in a recent statement outlining the economic benefit of actually following through with the U.N.'s recommendations. This change “will also boost the livelihoods of the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide, many of them women, by ensuring a more level playing field,” he said. 

While strategies must be country-specific, the U.N. also emphasizes that global coordination is needed, if only to standardize the monitoring and reporting of financial support. A good place to begin international cooperation? The report points to the U.N. Food Systems Summit, taking place on Thursday as part of Climate Week, and recommends that repurposing agricultural support be placed at the top of the agenda.

Image credit: Roman Synkevych/Unpslash

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Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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