The BusinessGreen Guide to the SDGs: SDG2 - Zero Hunger

James Murray
clock • 7 min read

Our at a glance guide to the SDGs continues with SDG2 and the pledge to 'end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture'

The targets

SDG2 includes five targets and three sub-targets, as well as 13 indicators.

2.1 By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

2.2 By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.

2.3 By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment.

2.4 By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

2.5 By 2020, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.

2.A Increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation, in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, technology development and plant and livestock gene banks in order to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries, in particular least developed countries.

2.B Correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round.

2.C Adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives and facilitate timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.

Progress to date

The UN's most recent SDG progress report for SDG2 starts on a bleak note. "After a prolonged decline, world hunger appears to be on the rise again," it states. "Conflict, drought and disasters linked to climate change are among the key factors causing the reversal in the long-term progress in fighting global hunger, making the prospect of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030 more difficult."

The increase in the global undernourishment rate is marginal - climbing from 10.6 per cent in 2015 to 11 per cent in 2016 - but it amounts to 38 million more people going hungry and the potential long term causes of the reversal have policymakers globally extremely worried. Is this a blip caused by food price spikes and protracted conflicts in parts of the Middle East and Africa or is this one of the clearest signs yet that long-projected climate impacts are starting to bite?

Either way, the implications are severe. Malnutrition-induced stunting - where children are too short for their age - is declining in almost every region, but it still impacts 22 per cent of children under five globally. Meanwhile, further evidence of a flawed global food system is provided by the fact that last year 51 million children under five were suffering from wasting, while 38 million were affected by obesity.

Assessing progress on agricultural sustainability remains difficult given the huge number of metrics involved and the massive variations from region to region, but one figure stands out that suggests governments are yet to fully recognise the scale of the challenge: government expenditure in the agricultural sector as a share of GDP fell from 0.38 per cent in 2001 to 0.23 per cent in 2016.

There are few, if any, large scale government-backed sustainable agriculture programmes in operation and R&D funding across the sector is also notoriously underpowered.

However, there is also a potentially encouraging explanation for the fall in government expenditure, as the UN notes progress has been made in reducing subsidies that distort world agricultural markets, with export subsidies having halved inside five years from $491m in 2010 to less than $200m in 2015.

Business implications

SDG2 mirrors SDG1 in its remarkable breadth. Everybody needs to eat; every business has a stake in the food supply chain, whether directly as producers or consumers of food, or indirectly through the need for healthy employees and stable, food-secure societies; every country needs a sustainable agricultural sector, arguably above all else.

As such, all businesses can support SDG2 by purchasing food with strong sustainability credentials, promoting good nutrition amongst staff and stakeholders, and lobbying for a greater policy focus on sustainable agriculture and climate adaptation.

However, it is for businesses with a direct role in the food supply chain where SDG2 will inevitably have the biggest impact. The inter-locking goals of ending hunger and poor nutrition while embracing sustainable agriculture that improves "capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters" requires sustained increased in yields and higher productivity. But such improvements need to be delivered without the unsustainable intensification that has accelerated soil and biodiversity loss in many parts of the world.

The goal's targets imply systems change across the agri-food industry centred on drastically improved supply chain transparency, ever closer co-operation between farmers - including developing economy smallholders - and end customers, increased R&D spend, a better understanding of ecosystem services, more effective policy interventions and subsidy reforms, and an end to gaming the food commodity market in a way that creates food price volatility.

Business risks

As the most recent UN progress report makes clear SDG2 will be very difficult to achieve. The world is engaged in a race against time to accelerate the adoption of sustainable agricultural methods and enhance food security at a faster rate than climate impacts undermine yields. A failure to win this race would see businesses the world over have to wrestle with rising food prices and the social and economic insecurity that would inevitably result.

More specifically, businesses operating in the food and agriculture space face a web of risks relating to both the supply chain disruption that will likely come if sustainable agricultural practices are not embraced and the disruption that will inevitably accompany attempts to push the sector towards new approaches.

Risks include increased climate impacts leading to higher food prices and availability risks, as well as food price spikes contributing to economic, social, and political instability.

At the same time changes to agricultural subsidies could spark a major shake out of the sector that could lead to further consolidation, while tighter regulations to protect ecosystems and measures to secure fairer deals for farmers at the end of the supply chain could leading to higher short term costs for some operators.

Finally, emerging biotechnologies and changing consumer appetites, such as the trend for vegetarianism, could destroy value and lead to stranded assets for firms that fail to adapt.

Business opportunities

The global effort to deliver on SDG2 should improve the long term risk profiles for all businesses and also create a raft of specific business opportunities arising from the transition to sustainable agricultural techniques.

Reduced levels of malnutrition and food price volatility is likely to result in stronger economic growth in emerging markets and reduced risks of economic, social, and political instability globally. Meanwhile, improved climate resilience and genetic diversity of seeds and livestock should help minimise wider climate and security risks.

Increased R&D across the agricultural sector promises to also unlock a new era of innovation for a highly conservative and inefficient industry, bringing massive resource and cost savings across the piece. At the same time the targeted doubling of yields promises improved financial returns throughout the supply chain.

Similarly, improved nutrition has the potential to bolster economic growth and enhance productivity through improved health across the workforce.

And the nascent trends towards vegetarianism and more sustainable agriculture promises to cut methane emissions, curb deforestation, enhance ecosystem services, and free up more land for biodiversity, while also opening up major new technology-led markets.

Ultimately, businesses that take a holistic approach to SDG2 demonstrating progress in supporting smallholders, protecting habitats, and promoting sustainable practices, while tackling hunger and delivering healthy products should reap dividends amongst an increasingly values-led employee and customer base.

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