Published on Agriculture & Food

The time is ripe for an SDG for sustainable food systems

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Farmers working in their fields Farmers working in their fields

Currently, there is no universally accepted indicator—or set of indicators—that allows us to measure, monitor, and evaluate food systems and their sustainability. Currently, we use indicators to measure food security—a complex, important, but nevertheless incomplete outcome of the entire food system.

This is a profound absence, as sustainable food systems are the absolute bedrock of virtually all seventeen of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG1 and SDG2 (on ending poverty and food insecurity, respectively). The concept of food systems is more holistic than merely food (in)security, and was in fact universally adopted at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. This further formalized the linkages between different sectors such as agriculture, nutrition, transport, infrastructure, trade, social welfare, governance, peace, and related topics. 

Our rapid literature review and key informant interviews show a huge appetite (pun intended) for the holistic definition of food indicators, particularly to measure and model long term trends in the sustainability of food systems in all its complexity, define policies and investments, and monitor and evaluate progress. Indeed, many reputable practitioners—including at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU); the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—and others, have told us that there is already a wealth of practical pilot-type experience that could help build a consensus around one set of indicators.

Three Key Steps to Fix Food System Measurement:

  1. Build on the SDG Process: The creation of a select set of holistic indicators for food systems could mimic that which was developed for the SDGs (which were adopted in 2016 by virtually all UN countries). Let’s not reinvent the wheel, but rather, combine and aggregate existing indicators and targets. Adopting “food systems” as one of the key dimensions of sustainable development supports the transformation of this goal into an SDG, or at least using the SDG process in agreeing on indicators of system sustainability.
  2. Be Specific: This process would also require explicit “inclusion/exclusion criteria”—we suggest that all the major components of food systems should be included. For example, assessing the carbon footprint of food systems is of the highest priority in climate action; however, many of the existing monitoring systems only use proxies (such as CO2 from agriculture production) which is then extrapolated to represent the entire food system. Instead, to get clear country food system profiles, we need a set of agreeable indicators that adequately captures the multidimensional and complex nature of food systems. 
  3. Ensure Relatability: The genius of SDG2 was to select an indicator of the “experience” of food insecurity by people, namely the “Food Insecurity Experience Scale”. Our “shift” to the paradigm of food systems does not ensure this same virtue. We may need to add other aspects to this experience of food insecurity that are not necessarily experienced now (carbon footprint, for example). This is just one aspect that needs an SDG-type process to agree on a comprehensive set of indicators.

As the UN embarks on a comprehensive review of SDGs to be completed by 2025, there has never been a better moment to improve food system measurement. The agencies involved in the follow-up to the 2021 UN Food Summit may wish to undertake a comprehensive review of food systems indicators using consensus, holistic criteria for the selection of system-wide indicators. As early as February/March 2024, the UN Statistical Commission can begin this process by detailing the way forward to use existing data and methodologies for an SDG indicator for sustainable food systems.


Abigail Schmitt

MPA ’24 Student at Cornell University

Nadim Khouri

Independent Researcher

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