You probably have heard of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 set by the United Nations in 2015. Speaking at the Stockholm EAT Food Forum on 13 June 2016, scientists Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev present a new way of viewing the SDGs and how they are all linked to food.

Credit: Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University

The wedding cake

The model of a wedding cake divides the SDGs into three layers:

The base for all goals is Biosphere containing: 

  • 6. Clean water and sanitation
  • 13. Climate action
  • 14. Life below water
  • 15. Life on land

As a stable and resilient planet is the basis for achieving development.

Relying on the implementation of these are the goals for society, which are:

  • 1. No poverty
  • 2. Zero hunger
  • 3. Good health and well-being
  • 4. Quality education
  • 5. Gender equality
  • 7. Affordable and clean energy
  • 11. Sustainable cities and communities
  • 16. Peace, justice and strong institutions

And in the end, depending on everything below are the economy goals:

  • 8. Decent work and economic growth
  • 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • 10. Reduced inequalities
  • 12. Responsible consumption and production

The 17. goal is the partnership needed to reach these goals.

The connection to food

The goal we might connect to food on the first view is goal number two: zero hunger. But looking further we come to realise that our whole food system relies on goals 14 and 15, life below water and life on land. This base is at risk as overfishing is reaching levels of 90% and we already use 40% of the global land surface for producing food with predictions of 70% needed if we continue with today’s model of doing agriculture. Goal 6, clean water and sanitation, is strongly connected, as 70% of fresh water is consumed in food production. In the end, food production is also pushing climate change (goal 13), which is threatening to make the whole situation even more severe.

Solutions for this lay in productivity increases, but also in a change of diet: a reduction of meat in our diet, for example, would reduce greenhouse gases and also have a positive impact on goal 3, good health and well-being, as it can reduce health impacts.

Going on we have also linked goal 1, no poverty, which is a major reason for 2 billion people being undernourished of which almost 1 billion are starving, while almost 2 billion people are overweight, creating named health risks. This emphasizes the need for more responsible consumption (goal 8) and a change of today’s system.

Especially in poorer less developed countries, the agricultural system depends mostly on women working on small farms, without earning enough money to escape their precarious situation. So for changing these problems connected to hunger and poverty we need more gender equality in order to create more possibilities also for women (goal 5), decent work conditions and jobs as more than 1 billion of the worlds jobs are in agriculture (goal 8) and generally reduced inequalities, e.g. by fair pricing, so that no one has to live in precarious life situations (goal 10).

You could go on and connect every goal in some way to food, as food is the most basic need we have and without solving the food problem we won’t be able to reach all of the other sustainability goals. For reaching this change though we all need to work together, especially politics and the big companies are key actors for success. They as the professional world as well as we as a society have to understand, that we cannot negotiate with our planet and its phenomena like climate change.

That’s why the UN sustainability goals are a very useful guideline on how to challenge the current system and its problems.

As individuals, we should all try the best we can to do our part, for example by sharing good practices on how to protect the environment, so that in the end we also protect ourselves.

By Till Stoltenow


If you want to know more consider watching the video of the presentation here.

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