With the increasing scarcity of resources and increase of the world population, all countries, both developed and developing, need to build pathways as of now for a radical transformation of their agricultural and food systems, taking the long term into account. But how to materialize long-term objectives, which may give rise to concern by appearing to be too radical or, on the contrary, prove to be ineffective in influencing the decisions of today as they are too general or too vague? Part of the answer lies in the key stages of building these sustainable agriculture pathways, which the Agricultural Transformation Pathways (ATP) initiative has worked on defining with three country teams. Its pilot phase has just reached completion.
Set long-term objectives for a sustainable agriculture
The development of pathways in the three pilot countries of the ATP initiative (China, Uruguay and the UK) has strengthened the conviction of the value of building the vision of a desirable future aligning the interests and strategies of actors, then of using backcasting (normative retrospective analysis) in order to develop and clarify pathways that allow this desirable future to be achieved.
The methodology developed by the ATP initiative during the pilot project phase comprises several stages. It firstly involves determining the main sustainability challenges for national agricultural and food systems, via an analysis of the situation of each country. Consequently, the Uruguayan team, composed of researchers and policymakers, decided to initially focus on the beef sector, which makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy (by employing half of the agricultural sector labor force and accounting for 15% of the country’s total exports), but has major impacts on the environment (by emitting almost three-quarters of greenhouse gases and taking up two-thirds of the country’s total surface area). The challenge was therefore to formulate objectives for 2030 and strategies to allow the sector to maintain its contribution to the country’s economy, while significantly reducing its impact on the environment.
To achieve this, the national team selected four indicators which are representative of the priorities established: productivity, the total surface area dedicated to beef farming, the carbon footprint and nitrogen flows. The methodology developed with the pilot countries of the ATP initiative aims to be adaptable to the specific situation of each country, by allowing them to establish priorities for the sustainability indicators which are representative of the desired change.
In order to define targets for these four indicators for 2030 and the strategies allowing these targets to be achieved, the experts and decision-makers used the practices of the best-performing farmers, members of the FUCREA (Federación Uruguaya de los Grupos Crea) network, as a basis and translated the general targets for productivity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions into very concrete technical terms, which are relevant for farmers and the industry, in order to further discussions on their feasibility. Consequently, the target of increasing productivity by 25% has, for example, been associated with intermediate indicators, such as “reduce the average slaughter age from 38 to 25 months”, or “increase the percentage of first pregnancies at 2 years-old from 50 to 75%”, which have made the debate more concrete.
Figure 1: Final and intermediate productivity targets
The practices associated with the productivity increase (mainly by working on feed composition, particularly via “improved pastures” sown with legumes) also contribute to reducing methane emissions from herds by improving their metabolism. Other practices have also been added (no increase and no reduction in the surface area allocated to livestock farming, tree-planting, use of nitrification inhibitors…), in order to complete the image of the sustainable beef sector which stakeholders have defined as an objective to be achieved by 2030.
It is noteworthy that what these figures seek to translate is the possibility of increasing the productivity of bovine systems, while maintaining their extensive nature. Producing tangible elements allowing them to be discussed constitutes a decisive preliminary stage for experts and stakeholders. It allows them to look at this image and discuss its consistency, and therefore its plausibility (in particular the paradox of being “intensive extensive”), and its sustainability (where do the elements to complete the animal feed come from and what is their own environmental sustainability?). This image makes it possible to guide discussions and actions in the beef sector, and to take an initial step, which will subsequently need to be completed by taking a more systemic look at the entire sector (which the SDGs require), for example, at crop production for animal feed.
Figure 2: Environmental and productivity targets
The ATP initiative involves all stakeholders
The long-term targets, monitoring indicators (intermediate and final), as well as the related strategies, are only the first stage in the development of transformation pathways for agricultural and food systems. In order to continue the implementation of the latter, the ATP project pilot teams conducted analyses of the specific levers and roadblocks in their national contexts, in particular to account for the most critical points and inertia of the systems that they are seeking to improve.
During its analysis, the Uruguayan team consequently identified a major roadblock – the knowledge gap between the best-performing livestock farmers and the rest of the livestock farmers – and a major driver: the strong inter-institutional framework linking together the various stakeholders in the chain (researchers, policymakers, companies…). On the basis of this analysis, the Government headed a “beef task force” gathering all the stakeholders in the chain, from producers to distributors. All the members of the “beef task force” meet at regional level, discuss everyone’s tasks and responsibilities, and thereby participate in this collective mission to close the knowledge gap between livestock farmers. The experiment is currently underway in several Uruguayan regions.
This analytical framework, which systematically examines the current trends, roadblocks and levers for action, is a central methodological element for identifying the most critical points to make the transformation pathway possible, and a tool for collective dialogue allowing all industry stakeholders to identify the most relevant series of actions.
Figure 3: Strategic matrix with details of the drivers and roadblocks per objective
Promote the approach and have international exchanges
Building detailed knowledge of national transformation pathways supports national discussions via participatory approaches, by stimulating debate upstream of public policies on issues such as: What sustainable agriculture do we want? What pathways could lead to it? What actions can we plan to this end? The Uruguayan case shows that it is possible to make far-reaching transformations to the agricultural and food sector tangible, debatable, and operationalize them.
The international dimension of the initiative also allows these transformation pathways to feed into an international learning platform via the creation of a network of experts and practitioners, who discuss experiences and the tangible ways of making agricultural and food systems more sustainable. The institutional context in Uruguay (the links between researchers and the Ministry of Agriculture, for example), and prioritization of sustainability targets in the agricultural sector by the Government, have undeniably been key factors in the success of this initiative. A learning platform reporting on what everyone finds difficult or easy could consequently not only disseminate lessons in terms of the socio-technical agricultural transformation pathway, but also in terms of key factors for successful implementation. The objective of the initiative is to encourage other countries to participate as it moves forward in order to initiate long-term dynamics. Tunisia, France and the Netherlands have already joined the initiative.
In order to achieve the SDGs via agricultural development – SDG 2 in particular, but also the SDGs related to inequalities, climate and biodiversity – there would appear to be a need for all countries to directly raise the question of agricultural sustainability and clarify the pathways that lead to it.
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