Taking Hunger Out of the Poverty Equation: Food Security and the SDGs

  • 2015/09/14

    Image: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

    Image: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

    This article was developed as a contribution by UNU-FLORES/Rachel Shindelar to UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Hunger is at the heart of extreme poverty. In the MDGs, the importance of this relationship was stressed in the first goal: ‘Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’. The specific target was to ‘halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’ (with hunger measured by the country average of how many calories each person had access to on a daily basis, as well as the number of underweight children below the age of five). Emphasis was placed, first and foremost, on increasing the amount of food available. While progress was made on this front, efforts to achieve the target faced many unexpected obstacles: extreme weather events and natural disasters, volatile commodity prices, higher food and energy prices, and economic recession, to name a few. And in too many countries these obstacles were aggravated by political instability.

    This focus on agricultural intensification inevitably had its trade-offs – in terms of water use, land use and environmental degradation. Globally, since 1950 the amount of land being artificially irrigated has more than doubled, and the amounts of fertiliser and nitrogen being used have  grown by five times and eight times, respectively. All of this has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions; degraded land, water, and air quality; and increased water scarcity and water-induced conflicts.

    These challenges, and the continued concern that food production may not sustain the growing global population, has informed the approach promoted by the SDGs. The focus of the SDGs is not only on the end goal, but also on the means employed to achieve it.

    Hence, the emphasis is on sustainability. Over the course of the MDG experiences, strategies and approaches evolved that are now informing the post-2015 development agenda.

    Hunger and food are addressed in SDG #2: ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture’. This goal and its targets show increased recognition that ending hunger ‘sustainably’ means looking at agro-ecosystems in a larger context. The key, however, will be to properly understand the linkages and interconnectedness not only between hunger, food security, nutrition and agriculture, but also the relevance of agricultural production practices and food systems for the development agenda as a whole. In this regard, a Nexus Approach is required.

    It is evident that goal 2 and its targets cannot be looked at in isolation. They are inherently connected to almost all other goals, it both depends on and impacts the achievement of them. Food security strongly depends on soil security (quality, resilience – goal #15), water security (renewability, availability, quality – goal #6), energy security (supply, price, dependability – goal #7), climate security (optimal temperature and moisture regimes, and low frequency of extreme events – goal #13), economic security (income and access to resources – goals #8 and #9) consumption patterns (goal #12), gender equality (goal #5) and political stability (peace and harmony – goal #16) (See Figure 1 below). The UNU-FLORES White Book: Advancing a Nexus Approach to the Sustainable Management of Environmental Resources illustrates the interconnectedness of food systems, ecosystems, social systems and economic systems. In turn, achieving food security and sustainable agriculture will directly affect human health (goal #3), education (goal #4), gender equality (goal #5) and marine systems (goal #14), among other things.

    The interdependence of food security on security of natural resources, and economic and political security.

    The interdependence of food security on security of natural resources, and economic and political security.

    This list of relationships between goal #2 and the other SDGs demonstrates the fundamental roll food security and agricultural practices will, and must, play within the  wider post-2105 development agenda. Developing effective, efficient and sustainable strategies for achieving goal #2 will be decisive in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in general.

    The good news is, food security can in theory be achieved for a growing population, with limited resources and without further degrading land ecosystems or transforming forests into agricultural land. This will require, however, understanding that the resources water, soil and waste are at the foundation of achieving food security. Sustainable agriculture relies on the availability and quality of soil resources and their interactions with water resources, vegetation (crop species) and ‘waste’.

    The need to conserve and improve soil fertility critically depends on the appropriate use of organic waste, manure and wastewater. Achieving goal #2 – and with it, many of the other SDGs – will therefore require further development and implementation of agricultural practices that can appropriately manage the interplay between these resources: the Water-Soil-Waste Nexus.


    Media: Howard Hudson/UNU-MERIT

    UNU’s new blog series will cover all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with insights from UNU researchers around the world. This first post considers Goal 1, which aims to end global poverty. Check the hubsite for the full series ahead of the Sustainable Development Summit in New York, 25-27 September 2015.