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Our Insights 2 Oct 2018

SustainAbility at Climate Week NYC: Finding Urgent Solutions to Food, Health and Nutrition as Global Progress on SDG 2 Backslides

By Jonathan Sim
nyc-climate-week-food-systems

© Photo by Phúc Long on Unsplash.

SustainAbility was at Climate Week in New York City last week and will be sharing blog updates about some of the events throughout the week.

Event: International Forum on Food and Nutrition – The Impact of Food Systems and Nutrition Patterns on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), hosted by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition

A number of powerful and jarring statistics jumped out to me as I sat in a bustling and overflowing auditorium at the Barilla Food Forum near Times Square in New York City:

  • 1/3 – The global proportion of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the food and agriculture sector
  • 38 million – The 2017 global increase in hungry people
  • 10% – The percentage of grain grown in the US that is actually consumed by people (the rest goes to feeding livestock or biofuels)

These statistics point toward a growing global recognition that the food sector is immensely important for us to address and get right. Unfortunately, we are failing to achieve this as we continue through the 3rd year of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Global focus is zeroing in on the sector’s immense contribution to climate change, and there is a growing focus on diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Close to three hundred people were in attendance here on this day, with conversation and debate flowing easily from eager presenters, panelists and audience members. Sustainable development thought leader Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University kicked off the event with an inspiring message of a timely moment for food and nutrition. Global focus is zeroing in on the sector’s immense contribution to climate change, and there is a growing focus on diet-related non-communicable diseases. And later in the day, a panel led by moderator Gerda Verburg of the UN proved to be one of the most rousing and dynamic discussions I’ve seen. Each of the four panelists (and a handful of audience members) were chiming in and adding color to a broad spectrum of solutions necessary for us to achieve sustainable food systems.

Throughout the forum’s day of events, we gradually formed a clearer picture of the extent of problems with our existing food systems, and the main things that we’re currently getting wrong:

  • We take a “reductionist” approach to nutrition, talking about calories and fat rather than food and food patterns
  • We blame individuals and behaviors for bad health rather than treating it as a systemic issue
  • We focus on and blame obesity rather than prioritize treating “poor health”
  • We are not talking enough about the immense economic burden poor health is having on national budgets and business health care expenses
  • We have maintained food subsidies that are disincentivizing healthy diets
  • We have not addressed misinformation regarding nutrition and food consumption

While most in the room seemed to find consensus that these are the primary issues with food and food systems (the what), there emerged a myriad of perspectives for howthe world should address these challenges. Some of these solutions overlapped or went hand-in-hand. But other suggestions conflicted, bringing to light a broad range of philosophical approaches on the most effective way for society to take action. But the general agreement in the room seemed to be that many different and interconnected approaches are necessary to get the chance we need, within the time frame we are aiming for. Some of the approaches offered stated that we must:

  • Recognize that most innovative solutions are coming from the poorest farmers in developing countries who understand the problem and solutions, and move resources accordingly
  • Not only focus on what’s in our food, but change the discourse on food – public perception would change if we rename Type 2 diabetes to “processed foods disease”; “plant-based diet” is not synonymous with health: French fries and a Coca-Cola are “plant-based”
  • Invoke science carefully and rally around fundamental truths – be sure that changes are evidence-based; going from gummy bears to non-GMO organic gummy bears is not evidence-based change
  • Work with and find common ground with food companies – we have to make food companies want to provide real food; the current incentives for them are going the wrong way
  • Work at the local or community level to change food in terms of social norms and acceptance
  • Focus on food demand rather than supply – rein in advertising unhealthy foods to children
  • Treat society’s addiction to unhealthy foods as opposed to focusing on markets
  • Stop focusing on and blaming obesity – it is “poor health” that is the prevailing problem; many non-obese individuals suffer from identical diet-related diseases
  • Shift the way we serve and enjoy food – what’s good for us needs to taste better than what’s bad for us

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We will not be able to deliver on food, security and health if we don’t also deliver on conservation, environment and climate change to protect the system that feeds us.

The talks of the day were not focused just on food and nutrition – a common thread running through the event was the importance of recognizing the relationship between SDG 2 and other SDGs. We will not be able to deliver on food, security and health if we don’t also deliver on conservation, environment and climate change to protect the system that feeds us. Additionally, they focused on the criticality to get this right as we face a world where population growth is putting tremendous stress on resources; and that the greatest growth is occurring in areas (India, Africa, China) where resources are already strained.

In exactly one year’s time, in 2019, it will be the 4th year of implementation of SDGs and the next meeting of the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – a key milestone at which heads of state will be accountable for demonstrating how they are going to help achieve the SDGs by 2030. As we approach this event, it’s likely that we’ll see increased interest and activism by stakeholders.

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We suggest that companies lead the conversation with solutions, as opposed to waiting for a less ideal one to be imposed

For food businesses, it’s a bad sign that the world has taken a step backwards (for the third year in a row) on addressing global hunger and malnutrition, which will likely spur even greater expectations for action from the sector. No matter the approach ultimately chosen by stakeholders from the laundry list of solutions, each one will have direct implications for how food companies will operate and stay competitive globally. And indeed, the conference ended on a call to action from Jeffrey Sachs that citizens should take advocacy into their own hands, to “get in the face” of not only policy-makers but also corporations to demand changes to our food systems. From SustainAbility’s point of view, we suggest that companies consider this an opportunity to get ahead and lead the conversation with solutions, as opposed to waiting for a less ideal one to be imposed.

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