Post-2015 Food, Nutrition, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)

Attempting to stay updated on how the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will address malnutrition is like trying to drink water from a fire hose. This week in New York (March 23-27) is the next session of the post-2015 intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs. My previous posts on SDG Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture are here, here, and here.

poverty trap

My latest sip from the flood of information is about the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Sustainable Development Solutions Network

Launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in August 2012, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) vision is to “overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world.”

The SDSN has 11 Thematic Groups comprised of scientists, engineers, academics, and practitioners. These groups aim to identify “practical solutions to key challenges of sustainable development.”

One SDSN thematic group hones in on linkages between agriculture, food security, and nutrition.

SDSN Thematic Group 7: “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems”

This thematic group, co-chaired by Achim Dobermann of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Rebecca Nelson of Cornell University, published a technical report for the post-2015 development agenda. It is a hefty 81-page report with 238 references. As an editor, I particularly appreciate that the authors define numerous ambiguous terms throughout the document (What is agriculture? What is a healthy diet?).

At the outset, the authors consider 20 “tough questions” regarding agriculture and food security, ranging from “How can consumer behavior be changed towards healthier diets and wasting less food?” to “What are the concrete targets and metrics for measuring the performance of the agriculture and food sector?” Directly and indirectly, they argue, agriculture will contribute to achieving interrelated development outcomes such as food and nutritional security, economic and social development, and gender equality.

It is hard to exaggerate the role that agriculture plays in human development. This report shows the multi-faceted contributions of the global food system to all pillars of sustainable development in the post-2015 era.

Among the reasons why agriculture is central to sustainable development are:

  • It is the world’s largest user of land
  • It provides food and economic livelihoods for many of the world’s poorest people
  • About 70% of the world’s very poor people live in rural agricultural areas
  • Meeting world food demand conflicts with current trends of increasing competition for land, water and other natural resources by non-agriultural sectors.

Although opinions may differ about the specific solutions to pursue, a consensus is emerging that measures to be taken must address food demand, production, consumption and losses.

Food demand and production

Global food demand will greatly increase due to rising incomes and billions more people to feed. Investments in agriculture are required to meet this demand “without irreversibly damaging the world’s natural resources, even in a time of climatic changes and extremes.”  SDSN Thematic Group 7 identifies several steps for the “agro-ecological intensification of food production,” or Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (SAI):

  1. Reduce food waste
  2. Increase productivity by at least 70% on existing crop and pasture land
  3. Stop the expansion of agriculture into sensitive ecosystems
  4. Lower resource intensity (land, water, energy, etc.)
  5. Use agriculture inputs “sensibly”
  6. Make farming an attractive economic development opportunity for rural populations, particularly smallholder farmers, youth, and small to medium-size entrepreneurs

Food consumption

Although there has been progress worldwide in reducing child stunting, child mortality, and micronutrient deficiencies, these improvement vary among countries and setbacks are common due to volatile food prices, conflicts, and natural disasters. Stunting has surpassed underweight as the most prevalent nutritional challenge, affecting 165 million children worldwide, while about 2 billion people have micronutrient deficiencies. (See 6, 56-58)

Overcoming undernutrition during the first 1000 days of life, from conception until age 2, is among the most critical interventions needed. “The growing new challenge is that two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kill more people than underweight. Some 1.4 billion adults and 40 million children under the age of five are overweight, including 500 million who are obese (see 59).”

Food waste and food loss

Healthier diets and less food loss and waste must be integral components of future sustainable food systems. As a general strategy, SDSN suggests developing countries increase their investments in reducing postharvest losses. However, they caution that addressing food loss/waste is not a food security panacea.

By how much food losses and waste can realistically be reduced remains unknown. There is also no evidence that if the food loss was prevented, those who need more food the most would have access to the rescued food.

Indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals

In March SDSN  published a 200-page draft report of SDG indicators and a monitoring framework. Unlike the thematic groups, which focused on a specific theme within the sustainable development agenda, the March report considers all 17 draft SDG goals and suggests global and country-specific indicators. The May 2013 report by the 27-person High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda recommended the SDGs include “few and focused” universal goals with targets “set at the national level or even local level, to account for different starting points and contexts.” They proposed 12 goals and 54 targets, which the OWG increased by ~ 40% to 17 goals (and 169 targets). So much for “few and focused”.

We propose that each goal be tracked by a small number of global “Global Monitoring Indicators” that will be monitored systematically for all countries. We recommend that the number of Global Monitoring Indicators be kept to no more than 100 indicators – the maximum number of indicators we believe the international system can report and communicate on effectively.

We propose additional Complementary National Indicators that individual countries may consider for their monitoring systems. These Complementary National Indicators may relate to issues affecting only a subset of countries, such as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

In terms of nutrition, SDSN recommends adopting and extrapolating the six targets (and indicators) for maternal, infant, and under 5 nutrition endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 2012. Four of these indicators should be in Goal 2 (underlined in red in the table below), 1 (overweight/obesity rates) in Goal 3, and the 6th indicator (low birth weight) could be a national indicator for Goal 2.

SDG SDSN March 2015 Goal 2

SDSN also supports including a multidimensional poverty assessment in SDG Goal 1 in order to measure the non-income based dimensions of poverty, including nutrition. Based on the Alkire-Foster methodology, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) is published by the UNDP’s Human Development Report Office and tracks deprivation across three dimensions and 10 indicators: health (child mortality, nutrition), education (years of schooling, enrollment), and living standards (water, sanitation, electricity, cooking fuel, floor, assets). It first identifies which of these 10 deprivations each household experiences, then identifies households as poor if they suffer deprivations across one-third or more of the weighted indicators.


Do not overlook one of the best aspects of SDSN’s March paper, which is Annex 1. It details the cross-cutting issues in the post-2015 development agenda, such as food security, nutrition, and health that can be monitored by a combination of Global Monitoring and Complementary National Indicators.

About Amanda Pearson

Editing & writing @HarvardWCFIA on global politics, people, history, and health. Alumna @GWpublichealth @LSEGovernment
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