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Food for sustainable development

Jeffrey D. Sachs and Angelo Riccaboni in New York | Published: September 25, 2019 20:40:15 | Updated: September 29, 2019 22:07:20


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Feeding a planet of 7.7 billion people is no easy matter. Every person on the planet needs, expects, and has the right to a healthy diet. Every farmer needs, expects, and has the right to a decent livelihood. The roughly ten million other species on the planet need a habitat in which they can survive. And every business that produces, processes, and transports food needs and expects to earn a profit.

It's a tall order - and it's not being fulfilled. Over 820 million people are chronically hungry. Another two billion or so suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamins or proteins. Around 650 million adults are obese, an epidemic caused in part by ultra-processed foods that are stuffed with sugar, saturated fats, and other chemical additives.

But the problems go far beyond hunger and diet. Today's agro-industrial practices are the main cause of deforestation, freshwater depletion and pollution, soil erosion, and the collapse of biodiversity. To top it off, human-induced climate change, partly caused by the food sector, is wreaking havoc on crop production. With more warming and population growth ahead, the crisis will worsen unless decisive changes are made.

The food industry is a powerhouse of the global economy and includes some of the best-known brand names, because we connect with them every day. Solving the many intersecting food crises will be impossible unless the food industry changes its ways.

Fortunately, there is an important glimmer of hope. A growing number of food companies understand the challenge and want to forge a new direction that is consistent with human health and planetary survival. We have been asked by some of these industry leaders, convened by the Barilla Foundation, to help identify the steps needed to align the food sector with sustainable development.

Our starting point is another source of hope. In 2015, all 193 members of the United Nations agreed unanimously to two vital agreements. The first, called Agenda 2030, adopts 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a roadmap to human wellbeing and planetary safety. The second, the Paris climate agreement, commits the world's governments to taking decisive action to keep global warming to less than 1.5º Celsius. Both the SDGs and the Paris agreement require decisive changes in practices by the food industry.

In our report, we call on all companies in the food sector, both producers and distributors, to adopt clear guidelines, metrics, and reporting standards to align with the global goals. Specifically, each company must address four critical questions.

First, do the companies' products and strategies contribute to healthy and sustainable diets? We know that the fast-food culture is literally killing us. The industry has to change, urgently, to promote healthy diets.

Second, are the company's production practices sustainable? Too many companies are engaged in chemical pollution, massive waste from packaging, deforestation, excessive and poorly targeted fertiliser use, and other environmental ills.

Third, are the company's upstream suppliers sustainable? No consumer food company should use products from farms that contribute to deforestation. The destruction of forests in the Amazon and Indonesia - literally a scorched-earth process - underscore the need to barcode all food products to ensure that they are sourced from sustainable farms.

Lastly, is the company a good corporate citizen? For example, aggressive tax practices that seek to exploit legal loopholes or weak enforcement processes should be avoided, as they deprive governments of the revenues needed to promote public services and thereby achieve the SDGs.

As part of our work, we examined the food industry's current reporting practices. While many companies purport to pursue sustainable development, too few report on the healthfulness of their product lines or how their products contribute to healthy and sustainable dietary patterns. Too few recognise that they are part of the environmental crisis, either directly in their own production, or as buyers of products produced in environmental hotspots such as the Amazon or Indonesia. And companies don't report in detail on their tax practices. In short, the food industry's commitment to sustainability is still too often more high-minded sentiment than actual reporting and monitoring to ensure alignment with the SDGs and the Paris accord.

But we are not pessimistic. Around the world, young people are demanding a sustainable and safe way of living and doing business. We believe that companies, too, will change. After all, companies need customers who are satisfied, workers who are motivated, and the respect of society as a tacit "license to do business." Some of the cases we analysed give us hope that change is possible. As our project continues in the coming year, with the aim of working with the industry to ensure that performance, reporting, and monitoring are aligned with sustainable development, we will keep the public informed of what we see and learn.

The food sector is a key part of a larger picture. World leaders gathered at the UN this week to review progress - or lack thereof - on the SDGs and the Paris agreement. They must keep in mind one crucial fact: the world's people are demanding change. We have the know-how and wealth to achieve a prosperous, inclusive, and sustainable world. The business sector must urgently recognise, acknowledge, and act upon its global responsibilities.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Angelo Riccaboni is Chair of the Santa Chiara Lab at the University of Siena and Chair of the PRIMA Foundation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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