27 August 2018
SDG Knowledge Weekly: Food Supply Chains, Decent Work and Sustainable Agriculture
UN Photo/Gill Fickling
story highlights

The Boston Consulting Group published a brief on drivers of food waste and initiatives companies can take to tackle them, while 'It’s Fresh!' launched a food waste calculator aimed at consumers.

Greenpeace launched two reports on sustainable seafood and human rights abuses in the seafood industry; the 2018 Global Slavery Index examined fishing and cocoa industries.

The Center for Global Development released a paper on voluntary sustainability standards for coffee, and institutional investors called for strengthened standards on palm oil.

The SDGs’ interlinkages can be examined in a variety of ways, to assess how the achievement of one can support or hinder progress on others. In June, Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev presented a new way of viewing the Goals, showing ‘how food connects all the SDGs.’ Inspired by this challenge to find the connections among SDGs and following recent headlines that highlight shortcomings in the food supply chain, this brief explores the food sector’s relationships with health (SDG 3), decent work (SDG 8), life below water (SDG 14) and zero hunger and sustainable agriculture (SDG 2), particularly in relation to responsible consumption and production (SDG 12).

In the US, reports that an herbicide (glyphosate) is present in common breakfast food products have stunned consumers. While similar findings have previously been made public by earlier studies that found the product in Cheerios, a US court judgment this month that awards US$289 million to a cancer patient who was exposed to high levels of the chemical has again focused global attention on glyphosate and food supply chains more broadly. In Africa and other developing country contexts, processed and nutrient-poor foods are seen as being correlated with malnutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as noted in two op-eds (here and here) on IPS News and an article on Devex.

A group of more than 25 experts, researchers and heads of organizations published an article in Agronomy for Sustainable Development calling for a “profound four-part transformation” of food systems in line with the SDGs. The first and second transformations, on healthy food and on sustainable production practices, address the issues exposed in the headlines mentioned above. They also speak to the early aspects of a four-stage approach to implementation 1) where arbitration processes must balance tensions between diverse actors’ interests and 2) governance of food systems must prioritize human development alongside resource stewardship, ecosystem health and equitable economic growth. To measure food systems’ contributions to the SDGs, the authors propose a framework that takes into account “interactions between food and nutrition security, environmental health, climate and social justice.”

SDG target 12.3 aims to halve food loss and waste by 2030. A thought piece by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) considers ways of tackling the issue, noting that each year, 1.6 billion tons of food representing over US$1 trillion in value is lost or wasted. The authors identify five key drivers of food loss and waste: awareness, supply chain infrastructure, supply chain efficiency, collaboration and policy environment. They highlight 13 initiatives that companies can take to address them, building on research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and World Resources Institute (WRI). Companies that take on these initiatives, the article notes, will reduce their environmental footprints while achieving higher profit margins.

UK company It’s Fresh! came out with a food waste calculator, as summarized on Sustainable Brands. The calculator is aimed at households and individual consumers, to demonstrate the amount of money wasted and environmental harm caused when food goes in the trash. Generation 2030 author Mira Piel also addressed the state of food waste in Europe, noting that policy measures must acknowledge connections between multiple SDGs with regard to environmental impacts and health. She reports that at the EU level, the main policy targeting food waste is the Waste Framework Directive, which sets the framework for policy action regarding food waste until 2030, but includes only a vague definition of food waste, and postpones the introduction of a common EU methodology and legally binding reduction targets.

None of the profiled retailers feature comprehensive commitments to phase out single-use plastics, Greenpeace reports.

As with SDG 12, food plays an important role in trends that will support or undermine SDG 14. Greenpeace USA examines seafood sustainability in the tenth edition of a report titled, ‘Carting Away the Oceans.’ The report features a scorecard for major retailers’ sustainability practices in categories of policy, initiatives, labeling and transparency, and inventory (Whole Foods tops the list). Greenpeace notes an overarching theme of progress: whereas all companies profiled in the inaugural 2008 report received failing grades, 90% in the 2018 report earned passing scores. However, the report highlights, none of the profiled retailers feature comprehensive commitments to phase out single-use plastics, and many still source from seafood suppliers that have come under fire for human rights abuses in the Asia Pacific region. A summary article is available on Sustainable Brands.

SDG target 8.7 calls for immediate and effective measures to be taken to eradicate forced labor and end modern slavery, among other abuses. In May 2018, Greenpeace East Asia launched an investigative report that links human rights violations to Taiwan’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet. Titled, ‘Misery at Sea,’ the report delves into legal and regulatory frameworks that inform the fishing industry’s low-cost business model. The publication features case studies based on interviews and other investigative reports to examine violent instances and deaths that occurred at sea, and to issue recommendations for action and systemic change. A recommended area of action is to reduce the fishing industry’s overcapacity and eliminate subsidies that contribute to this, per SDG target 14.6.

Also linking food supply chains to decent work, the recently-released 2018 Global Slavery Index examines risk factors for modern slavery in the fishing and cocoa industries. Fishing outside of national waters, dependence on distant water fishing, current practices around subsidies, significant unreported fishing and low productivity or low value of catches are all prominent risk factors that the Index notes reflect two overarching sets of drivers: national fisheries policy and wealth/institutional capacity.

In the cocoa industry, the Index applies the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) measurement framework for forced labor of children (also covered by SDG target 8.7) to help determine the prevalence of modern slavery in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Key drivers for the industry include chronic poverty of farmers and their inability to influence the value chain, price instability of cocoa, low levels of education, and low oversight of small-scale farms. The Index also looks at global, regional and country data to show modern slavery’s prominence and trajectory. It finds that slavery is most common in Africa and the Asia Pacific region, particularly in areas marked by conflict, though “the prevalence of modern slavery in highly developed, high-income countries is higher than previously understood.” On Devex, Kelli Rogers covers “a new roadmap” for the private sector to combat slavery in its supply chains.

One potential way of improving food supply chain sustainability is through voluntary standards. Sustainable agriculture, one facet of SDG 2, may be partially achieved through such standards, as Kimberly Ann Elliott examines for the Center for Global Development. Her policy paper titled, ‘What Are We Getting from Voluntary Sustainability Standards for Coffee?’ finds that evidence remains thin for determining whether voluntary certification schemes for agricultural commodities such as coffee are indeed delivering on-the-ground impacts in terms of price farmers receive, quality of product, working conditions and environmental impacts. She does find that certification, although context-dependent, can have modest positive effects and few negative impacts, but the cost of compliance can negate economic gains.

A blog by Carol Gribnau on Hivos’s website notes that the plethora of actors in the food system need to come together to facilitate change. She outlines multi-stakeholder approaches such as Hivos’s promotion of “Food Change Labs,” describing a recent pilot in Zambia. She also describes Hivos’ 2018 Coffee Barometer, which measures the coffee sector’s sustainability.

On palm oil, a news article on Sustainable Brands notes that institutional investors representing US$6.7 trillion have called on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to strengthen its draft production standards. A key ingredient in not only food items, but also cosmetics and cleaning products, palm oil certified by the RSPO is a major determinant in improving agricultural practices and food sustainability, in addition to commodity production and land management (SDGs 2, 12 and 15). As the investors recognize, making progress on the range of SDGs to which the palm oil sector is connected demands both an increase of ambition to meet environmental targets and the scaling up of support to ensure that local producers are able to meet the tighter standards without compromising in areas such as decent work (SDG 8).

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.

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