People, Prosperity, Planet, Peace & Partnership

Taking responsibility and building collaboration: The path to achieving the SDGs

Cristianne Close, WWF International | Mar 23, 2018


There is no doubt that our food system needs a paradigm shift. Fundamental changes are required if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Today, 7.3 billion people consume 1.5 times what the earth’s natural resources can supply. By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion and the demand for food will double. What’s more, though we actually produce enough food for everyone on the planet, it is estimated that currently one third of all food is lost or wasted. That means food is not available in the right place, at the right time or at the right prices – we do not have food security.

Beyond SDG 2 and 12

While SDG 2, Zero Hunger, and SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, are the two most obvious areas the food system touches, it’s impacts are far-reaching. For instance:

  • SDG14 Life Under Water – Nearly 90% of global fish stocks are over-fished or fished to their limits
  • SDG 15 Life on Land – The food sector is the leading cause of deforestation, habitat conversion and land degradation
  • SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation – Chemical run-off from agriculture is polluting water sources, upon whose ecosystem services we depend (along with those of forests) for water supply to major cities
  • SDG 13 Climate Action – It accounts for 24-30% of Greenhouse Gas emissions
  • SDG 1 No Poverty / SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities – Large-scale farms constitute 1% of farmers, but control 65% of agricultural land; smallholders tend to have below-average yields and are marginalized, leading to an inequitable market
  • SDG 5 Gender Equality – 43% of smallholders in Asia and Africa are women, yet their yields are lagging by 20-30% as they don’t have the same access as men to land rights, finance and markets

Simple economics of supply and demand tell us that we must change the way we produce, distribute and consume food to ensure food and nutrition security. Layer in the ecological impacts of the food system and it’s clear we need to target major transformation. This is for the sake of nature and its services, and for the sake of our own and future generations.

The goal of the WWF Food Practice is for sustainable food systems to conserve biodiversity while ensuring food security now and in the future. To do so, all actors in the food system must work together and take responsibility for their own actions. Focusing on SDGs 2, 12 and 15, we believe that the food system can transform to deliver success, while both directly and indirectly contributing  to the advancement of other SDGs. Together, we must commit to:

  • Taking a landscape approach to balance ecological processes with the need to produce food
  • Zero conversion of habitats, forests, peatlands and grasslands
  • Restoring degraded soils at scale
  • Providing technical assistance and financial support to small producers
  • Reducing food loss and waste
  • Increasing consumer awareness of the impacts of their diets on nature

Business must take a leading role

Of course, transformation of the system will require farmers, governments, the finance sector, technology players, NGOs and consumers, but given the inordinate control exhibited by just a few companies over the food system  (five companies process almost all palm oil; a handful of traders control 90% of global grain; six companies provide the majority of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) business must take a leading role. 

Encouragingly, A UN report released in April 2017 found that 82 out of 100 blue chip companies demonstrated commitment to the SDGs in their 2016 annual reports. Companies are already recognizing the threats  posed by growing inequality, poverty, climate and water risk and food insecurity. Companies that build SDGs into the core of their corporate strategies now will have an edge on competitors, though progress reports show how difficult impact is to achieve and many are lagging behind their commitments.

While sustainability standards and multi-stakeholder roundtables can define better practices across sectors and help catalyse collective action, businesses and governments must go further to achieve the sort of market transformation required to realize the SDGs. As the Business & Sustainable Development Commission outlined in its Better Business, Better World report “there is an imminent need for industry-wide coalitions ready to develop and implement SDG roadmaps”.

Business coalitions around specific are starting to emerge. For instance, the Cerrado Manifesto, The Collaboration for Forests and Agriculture, the GEF Good Growth Partnership and the Global Salmon Initiative.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration is needed for tangible results

However, despite verbal commitments, studies are finding a lack of tangible action: the UN Global Compact has found one third of its signatories have not yet developed any measurable SDG targets, while 60 percent of companies assessed by PwC were not meaningfully engaging. We urgently need to see other actors working with businesses to create change, but some encouraging behaviours are emerging.

A number of banks and investors are channelling investments based on sustainability performance, given evidence that companies who manage their supply chains sustainably are also healthier and therefore more stable.

Under the relatively new concept of ‘jurisdictional approach’, there are a number of promising partnerships emerging between business, government and other stakeholders, that could deliver landscape approaches by overcoming barriers that no stakeholder can tackle alone. For example, in Sabah the government is working towards the goal of 100% FSC and RSPO certification by 2025, and has set up a multi-stakeholder Steering Committee for this process. In Africa, national palm oil strategies are being developed by a number of countries, bringing together NGOs, companies, smallholder associations and government departments; charting pathways for development that aim to avoid massive environmental impacts. While we wait to see if these projects translate ambition into results, it is clear that without widespread application of such approaches we risk the pursuit of agri-economic growth irreparably harming biodiversity, perpetuating food insecurity and ultimately damaging our chances of achieving the SDGs. Indeed, while the SDGs reflect shifting stakeholder expectations and it is likely that governments will increasingly introduce new policies to catalyse progress, we can not wait until progress is legally binding.

Achieving food security and nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture are twin priorities for governments, businesses and civil society. There is no doubt that investing in the food system and transforming the rural sector will accelerate the achievement of the SDGs. The changes required for achieving the SDGs must become an integral part of all our behaviour, as private and public citizens, and not simply be something to which we pay lip-service.

Together, transforming the food system and achieving the SDGs is possible.


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