Agricultural interventions that fail to address people’s needs and interests are not just a betrayal of the most vulnerable, but also miss out on the powerful benefits of inclusive agricultural solutions. Social sustainability is both a humanitarian necessity and a valuable productive opportunity, and must be a central priority, not an afterthought.
Balancing priorities for effective solutions
The goal of the Green Revolution was producing as much food as possible, and sustainability mattered only as an upper limit to these ambitions. There was a recognition of extreme social and environmental boundaries that should not be crossed, but sustainability was understood essentially as a constraint on food systems.
The emergence of environmentalism changed this understanding. There has been a growing recognition that a failure to engage with environmental conditions can undermine food production, as pesticides and fertilizers damage ecosystems, and changing weather patterns bring increased uncertainty. There is clear evidence to show that environmental sustainability must be a central pillar in food production, recognized as an opportunity rather than a constraint.
We need to make similar progress in understanding the importance of social sustainability. As agricultural systems move (slowly) towards a productive balance between environmental protection and food production, the needs and interests of the people that comprise these systems often remain entirely neglected. This approach to agriculture is not only letting down vulnerable individuals and communities, but is also undermining both food production and environmental protection.
Failing to meet people’s needs, or understand their motivations, results in an inability or unwillingness to adopt new agricultural techniques and technologies. Sustainable solutions can only work if we seek to empower the people at the heart of agricultural systems, and make social sustainability as much a priority as environmental sustainability and agricultural efficiency.
Tackling social and economic inequality
Our efforts to develop sustainable food systems often create a hierarchy of beneficiaries, and risk entrenching existing inequalities. For instance, an understanding of environmental sustainability that prioritizes global climate projections over the ongoing destruction of local ecosystems clearly values Global North over South. We see this in discourses on deforestation in the Amazon, rightly lamenting the long-term climatic consequences, but neglecting the more immediate destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods.
But even within agricultural contexts and communities, sustainability interventions have been shown to benefit farmers with better access to land, to finance, to capital in all its forms. Improved markets and trade infrastructure benefit only those who produce a surplus that they can sell; land titling programs help recipients, but leave behind those who lack the means to claim land, or to keep hold of it under pressure.
When interventions are tailored to productive and environmental interests, social interests are often reduced to the preferences of the most powerful local actors or dominant demographics. By neglecting the needs and motivations of marginalized or minority groups when designing interventions, we make them far less likely to engage with innovations and opportunities.
Constructing solutions to these problems is sometimes as straightforward as making social sustainability a priority from the start. Researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) work to design interventions that recognize diversity in people’s relationships with resources and environments. Research on index-based flood insurance in India has emphasized the need to provide alternative insurance services to migrant or female farmers who are less likely to have formal land ownership, or to provide better information on these programs to illiterate or isolated farmers.
Similarly, research on water security programs in Nepal has demonstrated that failures to understand social relations within communities can serve to perpetuate existing imbalances and inequalities, for instance by ignoring the role of gender relations in household decision-making. We need more nuanced investigation into the social dimensions of agricultural systems, to understand how to design interventions that empower, rather than marginalize.
Social sustainability as a productive opportunity
Embracing social sustainability is necessary first and foremost because it protects vulnerable people from being left behind. However, far from acting as a constraint on food production, social equity must become a central tenet underpinning sustainable food systems. In Nepal, empowering marginalized actors to contribute to decision-making processes on resource usage would prevent short-term economic profit from taking precedence over resource and ecosystem preservation.
Unsustainable and unproductive agricultural systems cannot be improved solely through new techniques and technologies. Such failings are often a direct consequence of social and economic vulnerability, and an effective response requires not just technical solutions, but a recognition of how to incorporate these into real agricultural systems and communities.
We cannot separate science from society in pursuing sustainable food systems. Just as we have come to recognize that environmental sustainability is not just necessary but actively beneficial to food production, a similar transformation is required in relation to social sustainability. The protection and inclusion of vulnerable people is not just a humanitarian necessity, but an opportunity to transform agricultural systems for the better.
Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIAR, DFID, DGIS, SDC, and others.