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Sustainability, Food and Nutrition Security, and the Post-2015 Development Goals

January 05, 2014

This is the first post in a series on sustainable agriculture.

The Millennium Development Goals have been a remarkable global report card, helping focus the world’s attention on global development and human health priorities. The MDGs did not, however, focus on how and why progress across development sectors must be sustainable, and that is one of the key challenges for the emerging post-2015 development framework.

The phrase “sustainability” is often used, but it’s not always clear what is meant by this. We see sustainability as key to ensuring that progress is more than just achieving short-term results but is about building communities and economies that can thrive over the long-term, while protecting the environment for future generations.

This “sustainability” imperative is at the heart of development – no more so than in the nexus between rural poverty and hunger. Eliminating poverty, particularly rural poverty, is not possible without eliminating hunger and malnutrition through building sustainable agriculture and food systems.

 The simple matter is we can only lift farmers out of poverty if we find ways to grow more food sustainably.

The foundation believes a “sustainable” food system is one that provides populations with adequate food – both in quantity and nutritional quality – while minimizing any loss or waste in the food supply; it is a system that can be maintained while the climate continues to worsen; and it is one that helps communities flourish by empowering women, and protecting the environment.  The simple matter is we can only lift farmers out of poverty if we find ways to grow more food sustainably.

Leading development and food security institutions and processes – including the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the Zero Hunger Challenge, the Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network – have all recognized these critical facts and called for an end to hunger through a comprehensive approach to food security and nutrition in the post-2015 framework.  We agree, and we believe that to this end, the establishment of a goal and a set of specific, achievable targets in the emerging post-2015 framework focused on eliminating hunger and improving food security and nutrition is desirable.

One of the key bodies (the Open Working Group) informing the post-2015 process, meets this week in New York at a critical juncture on the road towards the creation of a new set of development goals in 2015. Here is why we believe the OWG should consider a “sustainable” food and agriculture system and a strong focus on food security and nutrition to be at the heart of the post-2015 agenda:

  • Most of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods; this is most true in the last frontiers of extreme poverty: parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. As we’ve seen in many successful cases of inclusive economic transformation, agricultural growth and productivity are the drivers of the type of growth that reduces poverty fastest. 
  • In all practical scenarios, we cannot eradicate hunger without increasing food production and agricultural productivity, and reducing waste and post-harvest loss. Most of the world’s hungry are – tragically and ironically so – farmers. Boosting the productivity of these smallholder farmers can help meet the projected increase in food demand –up to 60 percent by 2050 by some estimates – and thereby resolve one of the necessary conditions for food security: food availability. In conjunction with sustainable productivity increases, we also need to ensure that post-harvest losses and food waste are minimized to create a more sustainable food system.
  • Raising agricultural productivity must be done in a sustainable manner. Given environmental pressures – climate change, land degradation, water pollution – it is clear that we cannot afford to increase productivity without doing so in a sustainable manner. Unchecked use of fertilizer, herbicide, water and other inputs, as well as maintaining current rates of deforestation to bring in new land for cultivation will likely compound already dangerous environmental problems such as climate change.  
  • Enough food does not necessarily mean adequate nutrition for all.  Improving agricultural productivity has to be much more than just increasing the amount of food that is available. To reduce malnutrition and enable all individuals to live healthy and productive lives, we must also be sure that a variety of nutritious foods are available and consumed in adequate amounts. There are settings where agricultural productivity has increased but child stunting has remained the same -- or even grown -- because the quality of diets has deteriorated; less time has been devoted to feeding and caring for nutritionally vulnerable family members; or farm income has not been used to acquire nutritious foods in the marketplace.  This leads us to believe that food security and nutrition must be tackled together and that future development goals should include measures of food quality as well as quantity, such as dietary diversity, to ensure sustainability.

For these reasons, food and nutrition security should be a major component of the post-2015 framework, either as its own goal, or at least with key targets on sustainable agricultural productivity, efforts to fight malnutrition through reductions in stunting, and reduction in post-harvest loss and food waste.

In the coming months, the world has an exciting opportunity to link sustainability and food and nutrition security as the post-2015 development framework emerges. Making this link is a critical step on the road to a new development agenda that sets ambitious goals with an achievable pathway to their realization.

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