• Even a cursory read of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals reveals food is central to many, including Zero Hunger (SDG2) and Good Health & Wellbeing (SDG3).
  • 700 million suffer from food insecurity and poor diet is a leading cause of premature death, while food production is a leading cause of habitat and biodiversity loss.
  • There a few simple things we can do to improve the situation, such as cutting meat intake per meal, knowing where your food comes from and eating more out of the sea.

This past year, as we wrestled with everything from COVID-19 to climate change, we reversed progress on too many of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As we approach the Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021 and the UN's Food Systems Summit, it’s hard to imagine much changing, or succeeding, without making progress on food.

Even if one were to take only a cursory read of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, food appears central to many of them including:

  • Zero Hunger (SDG 2);
  • Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3);
  • Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12);
  • Life on Land (SDG 15), which includes sustainable agriculture;
  • Life Below the Water (SDG 14) where the focus on seafood is clustered.

Landmark study after landmark study shows that food is central to our health. We already knew this to be the case, yet we continue to make poor food choices that impact our own wellbeing and that of the planet. Some 700 million people suffer from food insecurity, and poor dietary choices are one of the leading causes of chronic disease and premature death (COVID-19 notwithstanding).

Another litany of major reports continues to show that food production is the world’s largest use of land and water resources, in addition to being a leading cause of habitat and biodiversity loss. Food production is among the largest contributors to climate change – or perhaps the largest, depending on how you crunch the numbers.

For environmentalists, the startling news is that even the Amazon rainforest may have shifted from being a global carbon sink to a source of emissions, as deforestation for food production shrinks and transforms yet another of the world’s largest intact rainforests.

For those who think food and health first, it’s a similar shock. The world’s healthiest – or at least most studied – diet is at risk from climate change. The Mediterranean Diet, which gets almost all of its health benefit from eating olives, olive oil and tree nuts relies on crops that only grow in five places on earth known as the Mediterranean growing regions. All of them are experiencing severe drought or worse; several are on fire. Once the trees go without water, yields drop, and the ingredients essential to the Mediterranean diet become less available and more expensive.

What we can gather from the importance of food across so many of the SDGs is that food is the medium that connects our health to the health of the planet. And cooking and eating also connect us to one another.

That’s why, through most of my career, I’ve used food as the medium for engaging people and business together around global challenges. It’s a place where we can start to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems from common understanding. That is, that we all eat and, thus, we all share the common goals of feeding ourselves, our families, our communities – now and in the future. The stream of recent headlines on the global climate crisis, severe weather and loss of biodiversity makes that a bit less certain than we’d like.

Fortunately, there a few straightforward, manageable things we can do to help improve the situation whether we’re dining alone, cooking for our family, or serving a menu that feeds millions each day. Here are three of those solutions:

1. Slightly reduce meat intake per meal. This is as easy as trying a new recipe or ordering a new dish. Spend your money on a smaller portion of higher quality, maybe a better cut, a heritage species, or perhaps something grazed or pastured. In a pinch, roast an onion, sauté a plantain, throw in a handful of herbs or a pinch of spices, or try out a new sauce.

2. Be intentional about where your food comes from. In addition to deciding on the ingredient itself, pay attention to where each item comes from. Avoid areas where production is enabled by deforestation, where labour conditions don’t meet your standards, or that are in drought and relying on intensive mechanical irrigation that depletes groundwater reserves. Market signals lead to better choices about what to grow and how to treat the people who do the growing.

3. Eat more out of the sea. Foods grown in the ocean and surface waters can have a much smaller environmental impact, use less water and offer a host of health benefits. The seafood industry and sustainable seafood movement have made it a complex choice. But wade through the guidance and remember that frozen and canned are delicious choices that are equally as good as a chicken or a burger and, at its best, most delicious form of carbon sequestration.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Those choices may seem modest, but that’s the magic of working with food. Small changes on each plate add up when done billions of times each day.

As we move toward SDIS21 and the UN Food Systems Summit, our collective and intentional focus on food can make a meaningful contribution to a more sustainable future.