Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #10: A Recipe for Sustainable Development - Understanding the SDGs through food

Dermot O’Gorman

19 Oct, 2016 | Sustainable Development Goals

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.

As the CEO of an organisation committed to a future in which humans live and prosper in harmony with nature, it may not come as a surprise that I am enthusiastic about a global development framework with a much more explicit environmental focus than the one that preceded it. However, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was a win for everyone who recognises that the complexities of tomorrow’s development challenges can only be addressed by whole-of-society approaches that balance social, economic and environmental factors. We need new ways of thinking and working, we need to break down silos and move towards a genuine “beyond aid” policy agenda that prioritises the wellbeing of people and planet.

We don’t know exactly what the greatest challenges facing global development will be by 2025, but we do know that issues related to the degradation of our planet’s natural resources, such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, will play an increasing role in driving poverty, hunger, inequality and conflict. We also know that addressing these challenges is going to require multi-pronged approaches from many different development actors, including the formation of “multi-stakeholder partnerships to prompt deeper change, learning and practical action.”

Take, for example, the issue of food. Core to our existence, vital for our survival, central to our cultures, economies and social lives, there are few things that better demonstrate environmental, economic and social interconnectedness than our food supply. With a projected global population of more than 9 billion by 2050, we will need to produce 70 per cent more food than we do today. This is alarming, particularly when considering that global food production already uses 40 per cent of global land area, 70 per cent of the fresh water consumed worldwide, generates 20 per cent of greenhouse gasses, and use 30 percent of global energy [pdf]. Further, with 75 per cent of the world’s food coming from only 12 different plants and 5 animal species, the vulnerability of our food system and the need to protect and promote biodiversity is even more acute.

Travelling in East Kalimantan recently, I drove through what was once a thriving lowland rainforest but is now a smouldering checkerboard landscape, cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Even closer to home, unsustainable agricultural practices, such as excessive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser, and outdated fishing practices compound the disastrous effects that climate change and industrialisation are having on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most complex and important natural ecosystems in the world.

The environmental implications of our growing demand for food are staggering. We must invest in better ways to produce much more with much less. However, the economic implications are just as challenging. 80 per cent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is managed by smallholders (working 10 hectares of land or less), providing the vast majority of the food consumed in much of the developing world. Our global food system is highly reliant on these producers, yet smallholders comprise many of the poorest and most economically vulnerable households. Their poverty and vulnerability is exacerbated by, and in turn often exacerbates, environmental degradation. Fourteen years ago, while based with WWF in the Pacific, I saw this first hand, watching local fishermen return home each day with fewer fish to feed their families and often resorting to unsustainable practices to try and fill the gap. In a region where the majority of protein for many people, as well as the main income stream for many families, is sourced from fish [pdf], commercial overfishing and destructive fishing practices have economic and social implications just as significant as the environmental impacts.

Broader social factors cannot be overlooked either. While urban food deserts, generally characterised as “economically-disadvantaged areas where there is relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food”, emerge across many city centres, between 24 and 32 per cent of food is wasted. In addition to the environmental implications, food waste increases global demand, which contributes to increased food prices, which then contributes to rising inequality.

Anybody interested in peace and conflict should also be concerned. In 2008, food price spikes were linked to civil unrest in more than 30 different countries and in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, drought and high food prices are a leading indicator for predicting civil conflict.

Further, despite comprising approximately 43 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force, in many countries women are systematically denied access to the resources needed to successfully produce food, such as land, technology, financial services, education, and markets. Not only is this gender inequality a major problem in its own right, it is also a significant food security issue. It is estimated that if women simply had the same access to the productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 25 to 30 per cent [pdf].

All of this can be overwhelming, especially if one considers that food is just one of the development challenges we will face in coming years. However, when I consider the 17 Global Goals, I see significant opportunity in their interconnectedness. The challenge of building a planet-friendly food system is an integrated and indivisible web of social, economic and environmental factors, and so too must the solutions be interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Of course, this goes beyond food, but I see in each of the Goals an opportunity to advance our efforts towards sustainable food systems and in doing so, we will advance efforts towards addressing other development challenges.

While the SDGs provide a good framework, we also need the systems and resources to support these combined efforts. Official Development Assistance will continue to play a crucial and catalytic role, but it will never be enough on its own. Beyond an aid program, Australia needs a broader international sustainable development approach that does not create new silos, but recognises the interconnectedness of the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainable development and brings together all sectors of Australian society.

This approach cannot be the sole purview of one government department, one line of the federal budget, one sector within civil society or a handful of socially conscious businesses. Rather, the principles captured by the SDGs need to be at the centre of Australia's foreign and domestic policies, the business practices and supply chains of Australian companies, and the choices of Australian consumers.

Due to its place in the world, the next decade will see Australia play an increasingly important leadership role in ensuring that the global push behind the ‘beyond aid’ approach to global development delivers for people and the environment, both at home and internationally. This is the promise of the SDGs. At the heart of this new approach is a growing recognition in Australia that the health, safety and prosperity of our country is intrinsically linked with that of our region, and our planet.

This post has been adapted from a submission to Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. The full submission is available here.

  • Dermot O’Gorman
    Dermot O’Gorman

    Dermot O’Gorman joined WWF-Australia as CEO in 2010. With nearly 20 years of experience in international conservation and sustainable development, he has previously served as CEO of WWF-China and WWF-Pacific and WWF International’s Deputy Director, Asia Pacific Region.


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