SDG 2: what will it take for business to play its part?

For a start let’s not assume sustainable agriculture will automatically solve food insecurity

Sustainable Development Goal 2 is often referred to as the hunger goal, or as the agriculture goal. In fact the goal is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. The targets that need to be achieved are incredibly wide ranging, and call for delicate balancing of competing challenges: Adapting to the effects of climate change and mitigating further climate change while doubling productivity and incomes. Focusing on food security and nutrition of the poor, many of whom are small-scale agricultural producers, while building sustainable food systems that can meet everyone’s food needs. And taking the policy steps required to support and promote agricultural systems without distorting food markets and trade and while ensuring appropriate investment into infrastructure. All this calls for collaboration on a grand scale. This goal is not just about agriculture, even though many of the targets refer to agriculture as the enabler.

Given both agricultural production and food supply are largely private sector activities, achieving Goal 2 calls for major private sector involvement. It is of course misleading to talk about the private sector as if it were homogenous. The food and agriculture sector alone is made up of every type of business from the largest multinationals to the smallest-scale producers. The nature and expectations of their investors, customers and end consumers vary widely, as do their degrees of separation from the farm, their knowledge of the relevant issues and their ability to influence them, and their underlying values.

My direct experience is with multinationals, so let me focus here on the bigger business end of the spectrum.

So to what extent is big business rising to the challenge of SDG 2?

Agriculture has been firmly established on the corporate agenda.

Six or seven years ago, the level of concern about food security, and the momentum to address it was high. The 2007-8 food crisis had hit populations, governments and businesses hard. High food prices were one of the factors that created tensions in the lead-up to the Arab Spring. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition had just been launched. The 2013 G8 Summit focused on nutrition. GAIN and the Scaling up Nutrition network were garnering business support.

Within multinational businesses, even those several steps removed from the farm, security of supply concerns and commodity prices meant that agriculture rose up the priority list. It was registering on operational cost and risk agendas, rather than being viewed principally as a reputational risk because of its social and environmental impact.

Many companies already had robust sustainable agriculture frameworks in place. Some had their own agriculture codes already in place, many were developing them. Third party certification was playing an increasing role, though the scale-up challenges of this were already evident. The food crisis pushed sustainable agriculture into the mainstream procurement agenda for many companies, and unlocked the potential for significantly more business attention and investment to secure future supply and business growth.

But how much progress is being made towards more sustainable agriculture? And what about food security?

Several years on, as the world watches a food crisis unfold in East Africa, how much progress has big business made on driving a shift to sustainable agriculture, and how much has it embraced and accelerated progress on a food security agenda?

Without a doubt, different businesses’ level of commitment to different agricultural sectors depends on the extent of the business imperative, as well as on their values. But even companies who have made a strong commitment and investment to drive positive change have achieved mixed results. Big businesses are often set up to implement well defined processes at scale, rather than to adapt to the very unique local requirements of agricultural systems. So while many multinationals have made great progress putting sustainable agriculture on the agenda, and at the heart of their procurement strategies, this has generally led down a road of creating targets and processes – with the risk that the end point is tickbox compliance, rather than strategic approach to ensuring sustainable supply chains that meet commercial needs, as well as supporting income, food security and environmental imperatives.

On the positive side, within the agriculture agenda, a number of important issues have been raised and embraced as key imperatives for business. Individual companies and coalitions are now seeking to drive meaningful progress on issues like climate smart agriculture, waste, farmer access to financing, and women’s livelihoods and empowerments – in the context of their agriculture initiatives.

I am not so sure the same can be said for food security. Unfortunately I think that 6 or 7 years ago a big assumption was made, and has stuck – namely that a business’s sustainable agriculture agenda equates to a food security agenda. This isn’t the case. The causes of food insecurity extend well beyond agriculture systems – to politics, household power dynamics, market access, income levels and income distribution through the year. Agriculture alone can’t solve food insecurity, yet the call to action for the private sector was to invest in agriculture to boost productivity, food production and incomes, and thus address food insecurity. It sounded so simple, yet in many value chains I have worked in, when we have dug into it, we have seen that improved improved productivity and incomes haven’t necessarily led to improved food security.

I think we still have work to do to articulate the real theory of change and role for business in addressing food security in the context of, and also beyond, a sustainable agriculture agenda.

The same is true of nutrition. While some food companies have made real progress on affordable solutions to provide nutrition to the poor, there is lots more to do to set a clear agricultural production and food solutions agenda that drives improved nutrition.

So what will make a difference to business’s ability to contribute to SDG 2?

They are by no means exhaustive, but I would throw out the following suggestions for both businesses and for those who want to help businesses succeed in contributing to SDG 2:

1)     Stop conflating sustainable agriculture and food security

To drive meaningful change on food security, the theory of change needs to be sharper. Business needs to hear – and help shape – a clearer public policy narrative about how agriculture contributes to food security and to nutrition, about what else needs to be addressed, and about the role of business.

2)     Drive the business opportunities, without forgetting the risks

There is an enormous commercial opportunity within food and agriculture. The Sustainable Development and Business Commission sized the opportunity for the food and agriculture sector from creating new business models to deliver the SDGs as over $2 trillion. Finding ways to leverage business innovation and create business growth from tackling SDG 2 will be powerful. Of course this must not undermine efforts to also understand and address food insecurity and malnutrition, along with other risks and unintended consequences related to agricultural supply chains.

3)     Rethink corporate sustainable agriculture development strategies

Procurement functions must continue to lead sustainable agriculture strategies, but work is needed to ensure they are not tickbox exercises. What is needed is systematic: a systematic analysis of material risks and opportunities across the agricultural supply chains, and a set of proactive approaches that effectively respond to these. A locally adapted, continuously evolving approach. Not just farm, farmer of supplier compliance with prescribed standards. Many businesses are moving in this direction, for example working on multi-stakeholder landscape and sector approaches for complex sourcing regions, as well as on individual value chains. Businesses need to find ways to embed and “institutionalise” this kind of blended approach, even though it may feel more complex.

4)     Build the enabling environment 

In many cases, policies and poor infrastructure hold back business progress. Businesses need to point out the problems, and where government action is not forthcoming, look to donor agencies and civil society to support with advocacy and investment in the things that will enable agricultural supply chains to be strengthened, and people to be included in markets in a way that addresses food security as well as production and incomes.

5)     Share the cost of the riskiest market opportunities

The poorest and most food insecure people, many of whom are subsistence farmers, often operate entirely outside markets. The social value of market inclusion strategies is clear, but these people are likely to make the riskiest and least attractive suppliers or consumers for businesses. For businesses to reach and include these people in a way that is beneficial, many issues beyond market access have to be solved, for example secure access to land, financing and financial literacy, nutritional literacy, etc. Partners with access to other funding sources can have a real impact – working with business to find creative solutions to reduce the risk and added cost of inclusion, and to address areas that fall beyond business competencies.

The social imperative, the business imperative, and the business opportunity are there. With joined-up thinking between the private sector and other actors on some of these points, I think a step change could be achieved in how the private sector plays its part on SDG 2.

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