What will be measured on food to track the world’s Sustainable Development Goals? and Why does it matter?

Executive Director Anna Taylor writes as part of the Food Climate Research Network’s Pass the Parcel blog series

November 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed at the UN General Assembly in September will provide the framework for development globally from now until 2030. The Millennium Development Goals, which they succeed, were incredibly important for setting priorities for international development in developing countries. Unlike the MDGs, however, the SDGs are universal – they apply to high, middle and low income countries and thus should have a bearing on policy setting in countries like the UK.

Goal 2 is as follows:

goal 2

There are 8 targets linked to the goal, three of which focus on the “how” otherwise known as the “means of implementation” mentioned in Corinna’s blog previously.

Now that the goals, and their targets have been developed, the indicators, or metrics, which will track their delivery are being finalized and will be published at the end of the year. This is the job of the UN Statistical Commission.

We have to learn the lessons from the MDGs and get the metrics right for the SDGs. For the MDGs, agriculture was largely neglectedThe MDGs largely neglected agriculture and its role in influencing hunger and other nutrition related health outcomes. Hunger, hunger was captured using FAO’s Prevalence of Undernourishment indicator which was widely acknowledged to be little more than a measurement of national food availability, and nutrition was tracked using childhood underweight (weight for age) which we now know is a very poor measure of nutritional status; height-for-age being a far superior alternative. Needless to say, aid investments in both agriculture and nutrition were, until the latter period of the MDGs, significantly neglected compared to other sectors.

There are some better candidate indicators in the mix for SDG Goal 2 but inevitably the need to hone down the list will mean there will be casualties.  Currently, for example, neither Goal 2 nor Goal 3 (which is focused on health) has obesity as a suggested indicator, even though poor diet is the biggest contributor to early death worldwide, and even though several member states including the UK are asking for this.   In addition, one of the indicators being proposed for Target 2.4 (the percentage of agricultural area under sustainable agricultural practices) looks likely to fall foul of definitional and measurement problems.

As with the MDGs the challenge will be to ensure that metrics build bridges not walls between sectors. Metrics are often intended to apply only to discipline-specific areas and can get in the way of inter-sectoral collaborations. I have lasting memories of sitting with Task Team Leaders running major World Bank programmes in agriculture, telling me that their success was judged in yields and incomes, not in the growth of children. They argued it was not fair to judge an agricultural investment using an indicator which could be unexpectedly affected by a health epidemic which the investment had no control over. They had a point.   Finding the right metrics to bring together sustainable food production, diet and health is a critical interdisciplinary challenge which requires urgent attention. TheIMMANA project is one initiative trying to address this.

But I’ve also seen in recent years how metrics can highlight the globalized nature of a problem and break down the apparent differences between high, middle and low income countries. The Global Nutrition Report, now in its second year, deliberately chose to focus on all forms of malnutrition – undernutrition, overweight and obesity and reports on a set of metrics relating to both. This means that Britain’s progress is judged alongside Bangladesh and Brazil in its journey towards or away from good nutrition. It’s a pity though that many high income countries (including the UK) still don’t report some of their key national statistics in a standardized way to allow inter-country comparisons to be drawn – for example UK child obesity is not reported using the age breakdown demanded for tracking the globally agreed nutrition targets.

Likewise, FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale which reports on people’s experience trying to secure food to eat, is a candidate SDG indicator to track the target 2.1. It has been applied successfully in high, middle and low income settings and will offer global comparisons on household access to food. With luck it may also spur the UK government into monitoring food insecurity at home which it hasn’t done for more than 10 years, and which is arguably more important than ever – something which the new Fabian Commission report highlights.

The final list of metrics chosen for the SDGs really do matter – they can create virtuous or perverse incentives – and will probably do both. The challenge for policy makers is to use the SDGs to drive sound investments and policy measures which don’t just show progress on the indicators but also on the goals and targets.