How are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to global food systems?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 1

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. I am thrilled to be attending and thankful to Chatham House for their support. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. That’s why it’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session of the event.

Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission

Session 1 – Sustainable Development Goals: Towards 2030

sustainable-development-goals-infographic-un-1024x576 The questions this section will address are:

  1. What are the implications of the Sustainable Development Goals on the global food system?
  2. What are the biggest challenges in meeting the goals, be they political, environmental, technical or operational?
  3. How might policy mechanisms be used to achieve sustainable food systems, food security and nutrition at global level? What is the role for national and international actors?
  4. How can the private sector be encouraged to bear responsibility for developing a sustainable system? Are public-private partnerships the right approach, and if so, how can they be fostered?

Important concepts to understand are the Sustainable Development Goals. Although some of them have an explicit relationship to global food systems (e.g. goal 2: zero hunger, goal 6: clean water and sanitation, goal 13: climate action, goal 14: life below water and goal 15: life on land), all them can be linked in one way or another. An inefficient food system leads to hunger and contributes to poverty (goal 1), in several ways including contributing to low productivity. A broken global food system, gets in the way of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for everyone because nutrition is a fundamental component of human life. Children suffering from malnutrition will most likely do poorly in school, this is contrary to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all (goal 4).


Guaranteeing women are empowered in agriculture, since we play such important roles in the availability access and utilisation of food, is essential in a healthy global food system (goal 5). Work and economic growth depend on the well-being of workers, global food systems have, again, the responsibility to provide that well-being (goal 6). Roads to transport goods to markets, warehouses for storage, dry and sheltered areas to store post harvest, machines for threshing, communication systems for understanding market prices and weather forecasting are all examples of infrastructure global food systems rely on (goal 9). Inequalities are worsened by hunger (goal 10). 70% of the population is expected to live in cities; food systems will have to supply enough calories and nutrients for all (goal 11). Managing shifting diets in emerging countries is a challenge with their increasing demand for dairy and meat, because of implications on water availability, energy requirements and the use of cereals to feed livestock instead of humans (goal 12). Hungry societies will never be peaceful (goal 16) and creating efficient, inclusive and healthy global food systems is an international responsibility (goal 17).

The keynote speaker for the session is Dr Kanayo Nwanze, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).


Because this event will be held on the same dates as the global climate change discussions at COP 21 in Paris, I expect that climate change will play a big role in the event’s discussions. See you tomorrow for session 2.




How does climate change affect food security? – Processing

This is Clementina Barajas, I first met her while I was working with Engineers Without Borders Colombia.


Clementina offers her vegetables at the local farmer’s market every Sunday morning. She almost always sells out because her produce is popular because it’s pesticide-free and grown with water that runs down from the mountains. I know people who get up very early just to get to her stand first and take home the best produce while it’s fresh. If you get to the market by, let’s say, 11 am, tough luck. There’s either nothing left or what’s left is wilted and goes to the compost post. Her vegetables have high demand not only in her town, but in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, which is two hours away by car. Unless you have the time and patience to endure a traffic jam to enter and exit Bogotá and reach her farm directly, (I’ve done this), you’ll miss out on these greens.

Clementina can sell more, she wants to sell more, there is demand for her produce, but, wilting happens fast and nobody likes yellow, smelly spinach in their salad.

How does climate change affect food security? – Part 2: Processing

(Read introduction to series here)

Case: Global average temperature rise and the cold-chain

a) Climate change effect

Can you guess which food processing technique is directly impacted by climate change? Here’s a clue: climate change is associated with a rise in average global temperatures.

Any guesses?

Freezing and refrigerating!

We freeze and refrigerate food to change its sensory properties (i.e. ice-cream), to transport it more easily (i.e. supplying demand), to extend shelf-life (i.e. frozen berries), but also, because our food is susceptible to changes we might not want, like browning on apples or mould on strawberries, we freeze and refrigerate foods to slow down the rate at which food changes. Click here to learn more about food processing.

b) Direct and indirect consequences

When you open your fridge and pull out frozen peas for dinner, your fridge is the last link in what is known as the cold-chain. Peas were picked from a field, taken to a processing plant, separated from their pods, frozen, packed and transported to grocery stores where you opened a big freezer, bought them and quickly carried home to store in your own fridge. That is the cold-chain.

Growing vegetables takes a lot of resources: water, fertilisers, time, people, etc.; imagine all that effort wasted because environmental conditions spoiled food before it reached our stomachs. Or worse, imagine the rise in human and animal disease because of toxins in what we eat. Mycotoxins are substances produced by fungi that can be present in food and have potential to cause death and disease in humans and animals. Mycotoxin growth is predicted to increase under warmer conditions associated to climate change (E. Van de Perre & L. Jacxsens, N. Deschuyffeleer, F. Devlieghere, 2010).

That’s why we need the cold-chain. But! The chain is cold and the planet is, on average, warming. Since the energy required to create a temperature difference between two environments is proportional to the difference of temperatures between the environments (think about a mini-fridge in the dessert), increased pressure to the cold-chain as a result of a warmer environment translates into a higher energy demand. According to James & James (2010), the cold-chain contributes to 1% of CO2 production in the world and 15% of electricity consumed world-wide is used for refrigeration.

 c) Impact on food security

1As I mentioned in this post, food waste is widespread. Developed countries tend to waste food at home and developing countries tend to waste food post-harvest because heat and humidity increase rate of unwanted changes in food. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2013) report mentions, in warmer places like India and Africa, fruit and vegetable post-harvest loss ranges from 35% to 50%, annually.

People are moving further away from where food is grown (urbanisation trend), the cold-chain plays a vital role in reducing food safety issues and post-harvest waste (FAO, 2008). According to the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR, 2009), loss of perishable foods is 14% higher in developing countries compared to developed countries due to lack of refrigeration.

In short, how does climate change affect food processing?

Public health problems due to food-borne diseases and food waste could become more frequent.

d) Lessons learned

We need to improve our cold-chain in a warming world or, face the food waste and safety consequences (Kirezieva, Jacxsens, van Boekel, & Luning, 2014). As our environment gets warmer, we must optimise energy efficiency in cold-chains and extend infrastructure in developing countries. Strengthening local trade to reduce the time and distance food travels can also reduce the need for the cold-chain.

I’m curious to know if you store all your fruits and vegetables in a freezer at home. Feel free to comment in the section below or to e-mail me at

Read more from the series How does climate change affect food security?:

Growing food takes a lot of resources: water, fertilisers, time, people, etc. Imagine all that effort wasted because environmental conditions spoiled food before it reached our stomachs. Or worse, imagine the rise in disease in humans and animals because of toxins in food. Mycotoxins are substances present in food, which are produced by fungi and can cause death and disease in humans and animals. Mycotoxin growth (i.e. mould on food) is predicted to increase under warmer conditions associated to climate change.

How does climate change affect food security? – Production

Read this very, very, short introduction first (not boring I promise but super important).
Imagine you’re a maize farmer from Iowa or Illinois. On any given day, would you think about how your actions have a critical effect on the livelihood of millions of people in developing countries? Yeah, me neither. That’s why when I read this article, the foundation for this post, I couldn’t believe how many people depend on maize yields produced in the U.S. and what happens when maize is not delivered.
At some point in your life you’ve probably seen a plant wilt and die from either lack of water or too much of it. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, that includes both those things: too much water (floods) or too little (drought). Since 96% of our food is directly or indirectly derived from soil, drought and floods mean trouble for food production.
How does climate change affect food security? – Production
(Read introduction to series here)
Case: Drought in the U.S. ‘corn belt’ – 2012

a) Extreme weather event
March to April (2012), was classified as the warmest and seventh driest maize growing season in the U.S. ‘Primary Corn Belt – a region prominently dedicated to the intensive cultivation of this crop. According to NOAA, this dry and warm combination led to declaring 89.3% of this agricultural region as suffering from moderate to severe drought (little rain and high temperatures) in September 2012.
b) Direct and indirect consequences (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014)
The 2012 drought in the U.S. agricultural maize region led to a reduction of maize yields of 97 million metric tons (m.m.t.)

The U.S. is the world’s largest supplier of maize exports responsible for 72% of global exports, however, these yields typically correspond to surplus. What does surplus mean? It means the U.S. satisfies their own demand for maize first and then sells what is left to the rest of the world. The drought barely affected U.S. internal maize consumption since most of the production stayed in the country, the 2012 losses meant a 5% reduction from what the U.S. usually uses.In numbers, the usual (trend) production compared with the actual one because of the drought. We’re not saying that the 2012 drought meant nothing for the U.S., it did, but the ripple effects for the rest of the world that depends on these maize exports were very powerful.77.8 m.m.t. less U.S. maize exports for the rest of the world in 2012 Here comes the critical question: who was expecting those 77.8 million metric tons of U.S. missing maize? Where were they suppose to go and what happened when they didn’t arrive?
(Spoiler: developing countries and millions of people at risk of hunger)
c) Impact on food security (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014)
The consequences of this maize scarcity were surprising to me because they reached millions of people in places far from the U.S. Corn Belt region. East and South East Asia suffered the largest decrease in volume (19 m.m.t.). But! the largest relative decrease (this means compared to the levels without the drought) was in Sub Saharan Africa by 9% (4.8 m.m.t.) – uh oh.
If you remember, the U.S. was affected by 5%, only 0.3% of that was meant to go to food, the rest would have gone to animal feed or other uses. In contrast, 10% of the missing 4.8. million metric tons of maize in Africa, were for food. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there was also a pretty significant relative reduction of food: 7% which represents 1.8 m.m.t.
When these percentages are applied to the populations from these regions, we’re talking about millions of people at risk of hunger because of an extreme weather event associated to climate change.This graph shows the food security consequences of the 2012 U.S. drought that led to reduced global maize exports. Click on the graph to access the source. SSA – Sub-Saharan Africa; LAC – Latin American and Caribbean;  EA & SE Asia – East & South East Asia; ROW – Rest of the world; CWANA – Central and West Asia and North Africa So, how does climate change affect food security? Well, in this case we saw that an extreme weather event (drought) in a region that produces 72% of global maize exports leads to missing yields that put 17 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of hunger and 2.6 million people in the Latin America and Caribbean region.
d)  Lessons learned
There are two important factors that contribute to how many people become at risk of hunger in the face of agricultural scarcity that we can take from this case:
1. The number of people that depend on the affected crop and to what extent. In this case, how many people eat maize and how much of their daily caloric intake comes from this plant.
2. The capacity to substitute the missing calories. In this example, how easy or hard was it to access other foods like cassava, wheat and rice, in the context of maize scarcity.
The risk associated to these factors can be reduced in part by diversifying calorie sources: different foods from different places.  By depending on more than one producer, Brasil and Argentina also export large volumes of maize, risk can me mitigated. By getting calories from other types of crops: barley, wheat, cassava, rice, quinoa, the likelihood of having millions of people at risk of hunger because of one single incident, can also be lowered.
This post was based on this great paper that I’ve been able to talk about freely because it’s under a Creative Commons Attribution License! Woot!
I’d like to know what foods do you eat to get most of your calories?  Feel free to comment in the section below.

Read more from the series:

How does climate change affect food security?:How does climate change affect food security? – Challenge accepted

How does climate change affect food security? – Food processing

How does food security happen? Alternative title: deconstructing a bowl of porridge