The SDGs and Food Security: Balancing Goals

The United Nations will adopt 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September as part of the post-2015 Development Agenda. However, as UN member states and other stakeholders prepare to reach a consensus on the world’s development priorities for the next 15 years, the importance of targeted interventions across all goals, especially food and nutrition security, is of critical importance.

The SDGs grew out of a nearly 2-year long process beginning with the establishment of a 30+ member Open Working Group (OWG) in January of 2013. The OWG model developed a set of goals meant to be inclusive, universal, and comprehensive, bumping up the Millennium Development Goals’ broad targets to a total of 169 targets.

The UN must advocate for the legitimacy of the SDG agenda as an advanced and improved agenda, different from but complementary to the MDGs. Goal 2, to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture,” is one of the broadest goals proposed by the OWG. Specificity and accuracy is the most important in implementing this goal. Agricultural development interventions are often well-intended but poorly executed, and a lack of local knowledge and capacity-building ends up distorting markets and disadvantaging farmers across the world.

Bolivian quinoa is an excellent example of a well-meaning intervention in local supply chains by the international community. Over the past decade, as quinoa has grown in popularity for its potential to combat malnutrition, the government of Bolivia and the private sector have invested heavily in its production, resulting in an increase in output both inside and outside of the country; the UN declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa.” Quinoa began to appear on supermarket shelves and family dinner tables across the world, transforming a little-known crop that was locally produced and consumed into an international superfood.

However, over a five year period, the price of quinoa in Bolivia tripled, while its consumption declined by over 30 percent. While increased production was thought to increase incomes for farmers, rising prices and demand for the product outside of the country has perversely exacerbated both environmental degradation and malnutrition rates in some of these same areas by making it more costly for locals to consume quinoa when compared to cheaper, less nutritious and often imported alternatives.

As partnerships between governments, the private sector, and various other stakeholders begin to take hold and scale up as part of the post-2015 development agenda, considering local knowledge and capacities in building interventions and advocacy plans will become only more and more important.

The SDGs represent a global commitment to the eradication of poverty and a healthy, prosperous life for all.  A large part of a global commitment to sustainability, however, is the inclusion of all relevant actors in the development and the implementation of any and all interventions meant to support the SDGs. As shown by the case of Bolivian quinoa, the most well-meaning interventions can oftentimes reap unintended consequences, especially in the food and nutrition security space.

Caitlin Allmaier is a Program Coordinator with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS. Lauren Cater is an Intern with the Global Food Security at CSIS and a graduate student in the Geography Department at George Washington University. The post above reflects the opinions and ideas of the authors and not necessarily of CSIS.

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