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Articulating the effect of food systems innovation on the Sustainable Development Goals

Food system innovations will be instrumental to achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, major innovation breakthroughs can trigger profound and disruptive changes, leading to simultaneous and interlinked reconfigurations of multiple parts of the global food system. The emergence of new technologies or social solutions, therefore, have very different impact profiles, with favourable consequences for some SDGs and unintended adverse side-effects for others.

Stand-alone innovations seldom achieve positive outcomes over multiple sustainability dimensions. Instead, they should be embedded as part of systemic changes that facilitate the implementation of the SDGs.

Emerging trade-offs need to be intentionally addressed to achieve true sustainability, particularly those involving social aspects like inequality in its many forms, social justice, and strong institutions, which remain challenging.

Trade-offs with undesirable consequences are manageable through the development of well planned transition pathways, careful monitoring of key indicators, and through the implementation of transparent science targets at the local level.

Humanity faces the grand challenge of reconfiguring food systems to deliver healthy diets that are accessible to all people while safeguarding planetary health.

  • The latest assessment, the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2019, estimates that 8 million deaths were attributable to dietary risk factors.
  • The adoption of healthy diets can reduce the number of premature deaths considerably, while remaining within the safe operating space of a stable Earth system.
  • Simply producing a larger volume of food and healthier food more sustainably will not ensure human wellbeing.
  • Other crucial challenges must also be addressed, such as poverty reduction; social inclusion; increased equity, education, and health care; biodiversity conservation; sustainable energy; water security; and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
  • These interlinked challenges are embodied in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all UN member states in 2015 and built around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is an explicit interdependence of the goals within the SDGs.

Technological innovations could help to advance SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 15 (life on land), and others closely connected to the food system within which they are developed and evaluated. But ignoring prospective unintended indirect effects does not avoid them, and the potential for unintended negative consequences is great in the absence of concerted efforts to ensure safety net protections for prospective losers from technological change.

Progress on achieving the SDGs is imperative, but also difficult. A vast array of promising agricultural and food system technologies are poised to enter common use in the coming years in a wide range of contexts. These innovations can help advance multiple policy objectives in the context of sustainable development. But we must all beware of the temptation of so-called win–win technological solutions and commit to the discipline of exploring and addressing possible perverse incentives, human decision making patterns, unintended and indirect effects, and resulting trade-offs.

The long, complex impact pathways that result from the release of exciting new technologies necessarily involve a host of sociocultural, economic, ethical, and political mediators that can accelerate or impede progress. The complexity of these impact pathways inevitably influences the trade-offs or synergies across different SDGs. Managing those accelerators thoughtfully will require dialogue and cooperation from a wide range of public, private, and civil society sector actors

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Further reading compiled from UNCCD Library: