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The world is off-track to meet most food and agriculture-related Sustainable Development Goals

  • The world is off-track to meet most food and agriculture-related Sustainable Development Goals
    The world is off track to meet most of food and agriculture-related SDGs. Pictured: a farmer from DRC.

About the entity

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Our goal is to achieve food security for all.

The world is off-track to meet most of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets linked to hunger, food security and nutrition, according to a FAO report released.

"The report paints a grim picture. Four years into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, regression is the norm when it comes to ending hunger and rendering agriculture and the management of natural resources - be that on land or in our oceans - sustainable," said Pietro Gennari, FAO Chief Statistician.

"Being off-track when it comes to reaching core pillars of the SDGs unquestionably puts at risk the achievement of the entire 2030 Agenda, and makes our overarching goal of ensuring an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations less attainable," said FAO Deputy Director-General for Climate and Natural Resources Maria Helena Semedo.

In the first report of its kind, FAO analysed, in a visual way, major global trends and data from up to 234 countries and territories on 18 indicators of four SDGs (2, 6, 14 and 15) under the UN agency's custodianship (1).

Key findings

Hunger on the rise

More than 820 million people are still hungry today. The number of hungry people in the world has been on the rise for three years in a row, and is back to levels seen in 2010-2011. In parallel, the percentage of hungry people out of the total population has slightly increased, from 10.6 percent in 2015 to 10.8 percent in 2018.

Small-scale food producers' earnings are about half that of larger food producers

Small-scale food producers - who represent the majority of all farmers in many developing countries - face disproportionate challenges in accessing inputs and services, and as a result, their incomes and productivity are systematically lower compared to larger food producers.

In most countries, the incomes of small-scale food producers are less than half of those of larger food producers. Differences in the productivity of small-scale food producers compared to larger food producers are also noticeable, though less pronounced than with regard to incomes.

High food price volatility in many developing countries

During 2016-2017, food price anomalies affected over a third of Land-Locked Developing Countries (LLDCs), one in four countries in Africa and Western Asia, and one in five countries in Central and Southern Asia. Moderate increases in general food prices, on the other hand, affected all regions.

More than half of local livestock breeds at risk of extinction

On average, 60 percent of local livestock breeds are at risk of extinction in the 70 countries that had risk status information. Specifically, across the world, out of 7155 local livestock breeds (i.e. breeds occurring in only one country), 1940 are considered to be at risk of extinction. Examples include the Fogera cattle from Ethiopia or the Gembrong goat of Bali.

However, this could be even higher as for two thirds of the local livestock breeds, especially in the Middle and Near East, Africa and Asia, there is no data on the animals' risk status. 

The report also warns of "no progress in conserving animal genetic resources and notes that ongoing efforts to preserve these resources appear inadequate". For example, less than one percent of local livestock breeds across the world have enough genetic material stored that would allow the breed to be reconstituted in case of extinction.

Some progress in conserving plant genetic material

The conservation of plant genetic material is faring somewhat better.

At the end of 2018, global holdings of plant genetic materials conserved in gene banks in 99 countries and 17 regional and international centers totalled 5.3 million samples - a nearly three percent increase over the previous year. This is mainly due, however, to the transfer of existing materials to better, indicator-compliant storage facilities, rather than a reflection of newly added diversity collected from the field.

Efforts to secure crop diversity continues to be insufficient, cautions the report, particularly for crop wild relatives, wild food plants and neglected and underutilized crop species.

Overfishing and uneven implementation of international instruments for sustainable fisheries of concern

One third of the world's marine fish stocks are overfished today, compared to only 10 percent in 1974.

The report notes that despite some recent improvements in fisheries management and stock status in developed countries, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels has decreased significantly in developing countries. 

Moreover, some 30 percent of countries still have a low or medium implementation record of the key international instruments combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and some 20 percent of countries have a low or medium implementation record of the key instruments to promote access of small-scale fishers to productive resources, services and markets.

Water under stress

Water stress affects countries in every continent. The majority of countries that have registered high water stress since 2000, however, are concentrated in Northern Africa, Western Asia and Central and Southern Asia.

Most forest loss in the tropics

Between 2000 and 2015, the world lost an area of forest the size of Madagascar, due mainly to the conversion of forestland for agricultural use. Most of this loss is recorded in the tropics of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

However, the rate of forest loss has slowed down globally in the period 2010-15 and this loss was partly compensated by the increase of forest area in Asia, North America and Europe.

What needs to be done to reverse worsening trends  

The report puts forward a number of recommendations aimed at reversing these worsening trends.

First, many of the problems mentioned above would probably be less acute if there was sufficient investment in the agricultural sector (including fishery and forestry). However, the report finds that public expenditure in agriculture has been declining with respect to its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In particular, the Sub-Saharan African region and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand) registered the lowest relative values of public investment in agriculture.

Promoting productivity growth and strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of small-scale food producers is also critical to reversing the trend of rising hunger and reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty, the report stresses.

Price anomalies contributed to undermining people's access to food and nutritional status in many developing countries. These could be addressed by improving information on prices and on food supply and demand of basic food stuffs, allowing markets to function more efficiently.

Improvements in water productivity and irrigation in agriculture and reduced losses in municipal distribution networks, industrial and energy cooling processes are among the main issues to be tackled when it comes to water stress.

Finally, all countries need to urgently implement transformational changes in fishery management and governance. This would also have a positive economic impact: overall, rebuilding overfished stocks could increase annual fishery production by 16.5 million tonnes and annual revenues from fishing by $32 billion.

(1) FAO is the designated custodian agency for 21 SDG indicators in total, and data is currently available for 18 of these.

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