In a recently released review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), my colleagues and I find that the goal on food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture is a vast improvement over the Millennium Development Goals, which did not consider agriculture at all. But, the SDGs fail to address important complementarities and tradeoffs among goals and their targets.
My colleagues and I were part of a group of 41 scientists who were asked to implement a scientific review of the SDGs and targets to guide policymakers in the finalization of the SDGs.
We focused on the second goal (of the 17 total): food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is key to ending hunger, but inequality and ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation are also important; these interlinkages are unaddressed by the 17 separate SDGs.
Several goals will remain out of reach of the poorest.
Care must be taken to simultaneously defeat hunger, increase agricultural productivity and avoid adverse impacts on the natural resource base. If we do not address key interlinkages among goals and targets, and reduce tradeoffs, several goals will remain out of reach of the poorest.
For example, an increase in agricultural land to help end hunger can lead to biodiversity loss, as well as overuse and/or pollution of water resources and downstream (likely negative) effects on marine resources, which in turn could exacerbate food security concerns.
If there are so many interconnections, what can be done?
Tradeoff analysis is one solution. Governments in developing countries will move ahead in addressing at least some of the SDGs either way but they can go a lot further if they assess the tradeoffs and synergies across goals and targets supporting the goals.
The selection of indicators for the targets and SDG is another avenue to ensure that tradeoffs and synergies among goals and targets are accounted for. For food security and nutrition indicators are already well-established, but protocols and data collection are insufficient to measure changes in hunger (e.g. calorie availability per capita per day, dietary diversity score, stunting/wasting with a focus on those below the age of 5 and a specific focus on those below the age of 2, as well as the measuring of micronutrient deficiency indicators keyed to the regions where specific deficiencies are most prevalent).
Indicators for sustainable agriculture, however, are much more complex as important tradeoffs even exist among some of the indicators supporting sustainability in agriculture, such as emissions per hectare of agriculture land; crop and animal yields per unit of water; energy intensity of agriculture, etc.
The SDGs take a significant step forward into the complexity of sustainable human development. This complexity requires support from the scientific community, including targeted capacity building for tradeoff analysis and monitoring.
How can we move forward?
We, the scientific community, including CGIAR, are ready to work with the Open Working Group and the UN Statistical Commission to identify key tradeoffs and interlinkages and to identify appropriate indicators to monitor the implementation of the SDG targets.
The report mentioned above was released on February 12th and presented to the to United National delegations soon after during a major negotiation session of the Open Working Group that is finalizing the SDGs. The SDGs are slated to be approved at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September.