September 25, 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals and Food Systems

Krycia Cowling

Krycia Cowling

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

UN-SDGs copyToday, leaders from 193 countries will gather in New York City to formally adopt the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an agenda to guide global development during the next fifteen years. The SDGs will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which led this agenda from 2000 to 2015. The MDGs generally neglected issues pertinent to food systems; hunger and environmental sustainability were the only particularly relevant topics included. As we move into the SDG era, are food systems likely to feature more prominently in global development initiatives?

The short answer is: yes, but so are a lot of issues. With 17 goals and 169 targets, the SDGs are considerably more expansive than the MDGs, which have only 8 goals and 18 targets. The vast number of targets in part reflects the SDGs responding to common criticisms of the MDGs. The SDGs were developed with more transparency and input from a broader range of stakeholders; encompass a range of issues beyond poverty and infectious diseases; and have a greater emphasis on the role of developed countries in achieving the objectives.

Of the 17 SDGs, Goals 2, 12, and 14 most prominently address food systems. These goals and the topics of their relevant targets are:

  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
    • Hunger and malnutrition
    • Agricultural productivity and sustainability
    • Access to agricultural technology
    • Genetic diversity of agricultural products
    • Market-distorting trade restrictions
    • Food commodity markets
  • Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
    • Sustainable consumption
    • Natural resource management
    • Food waste
    • Management of chemicals
  • Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
    • Destructive fishing practices
    • Harmful fisheries subsidies

What’s missing?

Each of us probably has issues we would like to see included in the SDGs that were left out. In my opinion, a notable gap is reducing consumption of nutrient-poor food, which is escalating worldwide. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, many countries are “on course” to meet global targets for hunger and malnutrition, but no country is making sufficient progress on overweight or obesity, and only five are doing so for diabetes (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Global Progress on 8 Nutrition Targets. Source: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2015.

What will the SDG era mean for food systems researchers and advocates?

In contrast to their near-absence in the MDGs, the multiple SDG targets related to food systems suggest that these issues may garner greater attention in global development initiatives. However, it remains to be seen whether the SDGs will be as successful as the MDGs in attracting political and donor attention.

The MDGs facilitated an unprecedented scale-up in aid funding, but levels of development assistance have likely plateaued. And by increasing the number of targets by almost a factor of 10 in the SDGs, what will this mean for the distribution of funding? Will each of the 17 goals receive sufficient attention or will this spread development resources too thin? Even with the volume of resources committed to the MDGs, many of the targets have not been reached as the 2015 deadline comes to an end.

The SDGs, much more so than the MDGs, reflect the vital importance of food systems to sustainable global development and global health. Let’s hope subsequent decisions by politicians and donors do as well.

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