First End Hunger to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

An astonishing number of people worldwide — about 820 million or 11 per cent of those alive today — don’t have enough food to eat. At the same time, vast swaths of the global population suffer from overweight- and obesity-related problems in what experts are calling the ‘double burden of malnutrition.’ If we keep going the way we have, the reproach of hunger is sure to continue past 2030.

This is especially troubling because eradicating poverty and hunger, the first and second Sustainable Development Goals, are key to and a prerequisite for meeting all the other goals. As a development economist, I cannot overemphasize the interlinkages between these goals. Zero hunger, for example, integrates and links food security, nutrition and sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture. The SDGs are indivisible.

Nowhere is the need for breaking down the silos as urgent as around the SDGs. This means doubling down on the efforts to spur progress towards goal 1 and 2, especially in countries that are struggling.

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. But it’s not being produced where it’s most needed. In the next decade, global agricultural productivity will increase faster than the 15 per cent increase in food demand, according to a modelling exercise between FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is in Latin America that most of the agricultural outputs and productivity gains in the next decade will happen, thanks to greater investments, resources, and technological innovation in the region. The demand for food, on the other hand, will be strongest in Africa and South Asia. This is why international trade is crucial to food security. Any disruptions, uncertainties, and trade tensions threaten food security in a growing number of food-importing countries.

Unsurprisingly, hunger has risen in countries where the economy has slowed down. Most of these countries rely heavily on primary commodity exports and imports, involving minerals, ores, metals, fuels and raw agricultural materials. For them, slowing global trade means contracting economic growth and increasing government debt at home, which negatively affect food security and nutrition. In high commodity-export dependent countries, one per cent increase in commodity-import dependence led to an average increase of almost four per cent in undernourishment, according to this year’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

The current trade tensions are bringing the global economy ever closer to its next recession and leading us to even more increase in hunger and malnutrition. Higher tariffs increase the price of imported goods and disrupt global value chains. They reduce productivity, increase uncertainty and weaken investment. Moreover, trade tensions increase government and corporate debt, and raise borrowing costs.

It also means more poverty and inequality, which hinders efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. The poorest people could become even more vulnerable. Over the next decade, global demand for commodities could slow down by one third, especially for agriculture and metals. This spells disaster for food security and nutrition in countries that are dependent on commodity exports.

Trade wars are not the only reason people are malnourished. Governments keep subsidizing products with low nutritional value, favoring staple foods — wheat, rice, maize — over fruits and vegetables. This has a negative effect on nutrition and dietary diversity. In poorer countries, nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive, making it all but impossible for people to move away from staples. In richer countries, unhealthy foods are cheaper and more convenient.

If we want to envision a world free of hunger and malnutrition, we need sustainable trade with clear rules. Incentives for agricultural producers must change, too. Consumers need better information to choose healthy diets. And we need a big push to think of nutrition as part of food safety.

Skeptics might throw their hands up and argue that it would be impossible to make these tremendous, complex changes. But it can be done, if we can find the will to put knowledge into action. It’s reprehensible to let so many people suffer from hunger and malnutrition when there is enough food for everyone. The obesity epidemic alone will cost the world over a trillion dollars by 2025.

We can start fixing the unfair, unjust, and unsustainable food systems that are undermining progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Fixing the global food systems is an approach that understands the interlinkages, interactions and trade‑offs between the Sustainable Development Goals. In our efforts to fight hunger and malnutrition, it is important to minimize the environmental impacts of production but making sure that everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious food. Balancing these trade-offs would bring us that much closer to tapping the potential of these worthy goals.

This post originally appeared on UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ newsletter on October 1, 2019.

(Photo credit: U.S. Department of State via Creative Commons)