The UN’s yearly High Level Political Forum concluded this week in New York. During the week-long meeting, representatives from member states and the major stakeholder groups – including youth, indigenous peoples, farmers, researchers, business and NGOs – meet to discuss and report on progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a side event, EAT-Lancet Commissioners Jessica Fanzo and Shenggen Fan met a crowd of high-level policymakers to show how achieving the SDGs will depend on us transforming food systems – fast.


Shenggen Fan and Jessica Fanzo

The Sustainable Development Goals cover topics ranging from urban life and education to oceans, inequality and gender. There are 17 in total, all introduced in 2015 with a long list of targets that need to be met before 2030. In other words, we have just fifteen years to get it right.


At last year’s EAT Stockholm Food Forum, Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Director Johan Rockström and board member Pavan Sukhdev argued that every single one of the seventeen SDGs can be linked directly or indirectly to food.


But in the jungle of goals, targets and acronyms, it can be hard to see exactly what connects to what, and how. So here’s a cheat sheet on each SDG and some pointers on why food is part of the equation:


Goal 1: No Poverty 

Extreme poverty is going down, and has been cut almost in half since 1990. Still, about 10% of people live on less that $1.90 a day. This impacts their access to food, especially healthy food, which has particularly devastating effects on children, because poor nutrition early in life can have lasting impacts. Securing healthy, accessible and affordable food for all is one way to fight poverty and its effects.


Goal 2: Zero Hunger 

Ending hunger is directly related to how well our food systems work – and it’s not just about producing enough food. We need to produce enough healthy food, and we need to do it sustainably, so production is secure well into the future. But more than that, hunger often disproportionately affects the rural poor, a group where food production is a major source of income, so improving the livelihoods of food producers, and protecting the resources that they depend on, contributes to fighting hunger.


Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being

Noncommunicable diseases are now the biggest cause of premature death in the world. Obesity, overweight and malnutrition are major culprits behind this epidemic of poor health, but switching to healthier diets at any age can turn things around, giving people longer, more enjoyable lives.



Goal 4: Quality Education 

There’s a strong connection between education and food: Poor nutrition affects school achievement and attendance, impacting learning at any age. Food has also been used as a way to bring kids into the school system: Brazil’s Zero Hunger program (Fome Zero) provided free meals in schools, with more children attending and diminished child labor as a result. The education system is also the perfect place to spread information about how to eat healthy and sustainable diets, and teach people to cook and eat enjoyably.


Goal 5: Gender Equality 

Goal 5 is the gender equality stand-alone goal, but it can only be successful if women are integrated into each and every goal. That means goals around food too. There are many reasons to focus specifically on women’s nutrition: For example, healthy women are better equipped to break existing barriers to equality and they can nourish healthy babies. In cases when families are food insecure, women’s and girls’ nutrition is sometimes given lower priority, which means improving food access can make a huge difference to these groups in particular. Also, the share of women in agriculture is growing, in some parts of the world more than half of farmers are female, so interventions for sustainable food production need to take changing gender relations into account.


Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation 

About 70 % of freshwater is used for agriculture. Sustainably managing water that goes into food production can speed up progress on the goal of ensuring water availability. But food production also contributes to water pollution, including through nutrient runoff, which means it’s not just the amount of water used that matters. Food processing also has a significant role to play in water conservation and minimizing pollution.



Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy 

Food production is notoriously energy-intensive. Reducing the amount of energy used in developed countries’ food systems is an important step to lower GHG emissions and environmental impact, but conversely, helping producers in developing countries source clean, reliable energy can help them increase production – closing the so-called yield gap – ensuring greater food security and improved nutrition. The good news is, we have the technology to meet both these challenges at once.


Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Some of the world’s most dangerous, grueling and unhealthy jobs are currently found in the food system. Fisheries workers in particular often make it to the top of rankings over unsafe work, as do those employed in forestry – a sector often coupled with expanding demand for agricultural land. More sustainable food production can, and must, ensure safer work and better livelihoods for food producers. The FAO estimates that over a billion people work in agriculture alone, so positive change in the food sector can have impact on a huge scale, and creating opportunities in sustainable agriculture is a key way to grow economies.


Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 

There are few good estimates of the total contribution of food, including production, processing, retail and support functions, to the global economy. However, World Bank data shows that the average consumer spends 40 % of their income on food and beverages, and that 30 % of the labour force is employed in agriculture alone. We know food is a huge and growing market. We’ve seen the power of food to drive innovation, including the coming fake meat revolution, and technological change. We also know that solving challenges related to infrastructure in particular are crucial to a more sustainable food system – much of the food wasted each year could be avoided through improved transport, processing and storage after harvest.


Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities

Reducing inequalities between countries and within societies themselves will require a huge boost for those at the bottom of the ladder. We know that food producers and food system labor is overrepresented in this group, and reduced inequalities will mean being serious about improving conditions for the people and communities that work hard to supply our food and who depend the most on sustainable use of natural resources for their livelihoods.


Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas today. In 1800, it was just 3 %. That’s an astounding demographic shift, and more people keep coming to cities. This means cities need to be prepared to support for their growing, young populations, and secure their needs, not least for food. Cities don’t produce much food, but being resilient and sustainable, and ready for future challenges, means cities have to secure a safe, heathy food supply for all. To explore some of the ways that cities are developing around food system innovations, visit the C40-EAT Food Systems Network.


Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

We all have to eat. Because there are so many ways to vary diets and food production, this is one area where it’s possible to set clear and achievable targets for responsible consumption and production, drive innovation and create large-scale change. To explore some of the ways that the food industry is addressing responsible consumption and production, visit the WBCSD-EAT FReSH program.


Goal 13: Climate Action 

Goal 13 is a no-brainer: Food production contributes around a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. We have the knowledge and technology not only to massively decrease this impact, using clean energy in agriculture and managing fertilizers better, but also to make agriculture a carbon sink by applying practices that return carbon to soils, improve yields, increase water-holding capacity and decrease erosion. On top of that, meat consumption is a major health issue. By eating limited amounts of meat or none at all we can reduce methane emissions and improve our diets.


Goal 14: Life Below Water 

Things aren’t looking good for the oceans. The FAO monitors 600 fish stocks globally. Over half of these are fully exploited and almost 20 % are overexploited. The challenge of bringing wild fisheries into sustainable management is huge, and the stakes are large: In many developing countries, fish proteins account for half or more of all protein consumed. Expanding aquaculture is a potential solution to the problem but needs to be done in a way that doesn’t deplete or pollute coastal ecosystems, or rely on wild fish stocks for feed input. In other words, this is one SDG where food really can fix it.


Goal 15: Life on Land 

The life on land goal challenges the world to protect, restore and sustainably use terrestrial ecosystems, manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss. Food production is a huge culprit behind these issues: 80 % of endangered mammals experience habitat loss due to expanding agriculture, 12 % of anthropogenic emissions are coming from tropical deforestation, the list goes on. Bringing food production within the planetary boundaries is the single biggest intervention we can do to protect life on land.


Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions 

Yes, food is even connected to society’s institutions. Food insecurity and food price volatility, like the world saw in 2008 and 2011, can cause and exacerbate conflict, violence and civil unrest. The war in Syria has been attributed in part to drought and rural distress following crop yield decline and food scarcity. The Arab spring uprisings have been traced back to the 2011 staple price spikes on international markets. There is also a reverse relationship between food and peace, justice, and strong institutions: A lack of these can also be a root cause of dysfunctional food systems, hunger and poor nutrition. Getting it right on food can both depend on this goal, and strengthen its attainment.


Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals 

The connection here might be less direct than in the previous 16 cases. Nonetheless, food makes an excellent arena for building connections, collaborations and strong partnerships, precisely because almost everything can be traced to food, and almost all the social and planetary issues the SDGs want to tackle have a food component. Food as a topic is an incredible umbrella under which farmers, young people, scientists, business, inventors, politicians, indigenous peoples, workers, creatives, and pretty much everyone else can be brought together to share solutions and craft a vision for the future. We all care about eating well.



Watch Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev discussing food and the SDGs at last year’s EAT Stockholm Food Forum

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