Monday, 22 October, 2018

Food and the post-2015 development agenda

When 193 governments came together to agree a common framework to tackle 17 major world issues by 2030, standards were seen as critical to help achieve the United Nations agenda for sustainable development. With over 1 600 standards for the food production sector alone, ISO certainly has the means. But which standards are most relevant, and what kind of benefits – if any – can the food industry expect?

We live in a world where nearly two billion people are overweight or obese, yet more than 800 million go hungry. Add to that a growing population that is tipped to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 – that’s two billion more mouths to feed – and it’s clear that safe, sustainable and nutritious food production and distribution are one of our greatest challenges.

Feeding the world is, unsurprisingly, a key ingredient of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, whose Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a major pillar about ending hunger and poverty everywhere. Standardization can play a significant part in this effort, which is why ISO’s largest technical committee in the field of food has taken the initiative to place the 2030 Agenda goals at the heart of its work.

Destination “zero hunger”

“How close are we to zero hunger?” asks a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the state of food security and nutrition in the world. Not very, it seems, judging by the number of undernourished people, which has risen from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. At the same time, worldwide obesity has tripled since 19751)Ensuring food is sustainably produced in the right areas of the globe, therefore, is no easy task.

Ghanaian mother feeding her child.

FAO is the custodian agency designated to monitor indicators across six of the 17 SDGs– namely, Goals 2, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 15. Covering areas such as eliminating hunger, building food security and a sustainable agricultural system, access to water and sanitation, sustainable production and consumption, and protecting forests and oceans, these six goals are among the key SDGs for food companies. In addition, SDG 3 “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” is hugely relevant for food companies.

There are four other development goals equally significant to the agro-industry. SDG 9, for example, pertains to infrastructure, sustainable industrialization and innovation, while SDG 13 supports climate change action. Meanwhile, SDG 8 covers sustainable economic growth and full employment and SDG 17 calls for strengthening partnerships in pursuit of global sustainability.

Amid its extensive portfolio of International Standards, which contains globally recognized tools to help governments, industry and consumers contribute to all the SDGs, ISO boasts over 1 600 standards for the food production sector alone, designed to create confidence in food products and improve agricultural methods. Add to that those standards that help organizations manage their environmental impact, promote sustainable and ethical purchasing decisions and reduce waste, and it’s no wonder ISO technical committees are starting to map their work against the United Nations SDGs to see how they might contribute even more.

Partners in development

Quality control expert inspecting chicken eggs through a microscope.Leading the way is one of ISO’s oldest technical committees: ISO/TC 34 on food products. Since its inception in 1947, ISO/TC 34 has published nearly 850 standards – with another 120 in development – covering human and animal foodstuffs from farm to fork. It consists of 19 different subcommittees and working groups focusing on everything from food products and animal feeding stuffs to safety, vitamins and microbiology. The team of 307 experts from 138 countries is responsible for ISO’s flagship family of standards – the ISO 22000 series on food safety management – which provides guidelines and best practice for managing risks in all areas of food production.

Sandrine Espeillac, Secretary of ISO/TC 34, says an invitation by Codex Alimentarius to participate in a panel at one of their events last year was the catalyst for the technical committee to take a closer look at how food-related standards contribute to the SDGs and develop an initiative within the committee to see what more can be done to align future standards on the 2030 Agenda. Often referred to as the “Food Code”, the Codex Alimentarius can safely claim to be the most important international reference point in matters concerning food quality.

“The event was about the partnerships between Codex and international organizations for sustainable development,” Sandrine Espeillac explains. “I sat on a panel that discussed how we could all work together to contribute to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It was clear that many of our standards already do so directly – although the link wasn’t always made – and that there were also some gaps where standardization could contribute even further.”

This spurred the committee to embark on a project to correctly map current standards to the SDGs and to develop an entirely new technical specification that focuses directly on how the agri-food sector can offer its contribution.

The big disconnect

Social responsibility is one area where the link must be made more obvious. While there is increased awareness that businesses can indeed become a force for good in society and the world, companies still tend to use the SDGs as an indicator to showcase how existing business activities contribute to the 17 global goals. And the food industry is no exception. This further accentuates the “big disconnect” between business doing good while the state of the world is deteriorating.

To achieve the full potential of the SDGs for business, we must embed true sustainability into corporate strategy, and International Standards offer the chance to do just that. Take, for instance, the future ISO/TS 26030. ISO/TC 34 is working on a food-sector application of one of the world’s most referenced standards for social responsibility – ISO 26000.

The much awaited technical specification will give guidance on how to integrate the core issues of social responsibility in the food chain, which should serve to harmonize the different approaches at an international level. Its objectives include contributing to the SDGs by providing recommendations to businesses and organizations on how they can operate in an ethical and transparent way that contributes to sustainable development.

The example of cocoa

A plantation worker uses a rake to turn cocoa beans left out to dry in the sun.Standards already in development that have been identified as being easily linked to the SDGs include the ISO 34101 series on sustainable and traceable cocoa. Cocoa is an industry of relevance to the SDGs as it is predominantly a smallholder activity in developing countries. A labour-intensive crop, it often produces low yields, making it difficult for farmers to be economically viable.

Although there are a number of initiatives in place to help make cocoa farming more sustainable, there remains a strong need for harmonization to achieve uniform procedures and consensus on what sustainability in this sector really means and how those initiatives can truly serve farmers’ needs.

Due out as a multi-part series later this year, ISO 34101, Sustainable and traceable cocoa, takes a stepwise approach to sustainable cocoa bean production and specifies requirements for a management system, product traceability and improved performance. Featuring a dynamic farm development plan, it aims to implement good agricultural practices, protect the environment, and improve the social conditions and livelihoods of farmers. This has the potential to make cocoa farming more attractive to young people, which is important as the average age of farmers has risen rapidly in the main cocoa-producing regions over the last few decades.

Another ISO/TC 34 deliverable identified as being directly aligned with the SDGs is technical specification ISO/TS 34700 for animal welfare management. It helps organizations in the food and feed industry develop an animal welfare plan that is aligned with the principles of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Terrestrial Animal Health Code (TAHC) and ensures the welfare of farm animals across the supply chain.

Two workers inspecting fresh vegetables in a warehouse.

Top of mind

As more standards are identified throughout the year and mapped to the SDGs, ISO/TC 34 will have the chance to promote the benefits of food standards, which should encourage broader uptake and further contribute to the SDGs.

But work doesn’t stop there. “This really is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Sandrine Espeillac. “Now that the SDGs are a key part of our business plan, they will be top of mind when future standards are proposed and developed. We hope this will contribute to a more sustainable food industry worldwide.”

As the custodian of world food security, the food industry has a unique opportunity to embrace the SDG agenda and use it as a driver of business strategies and innovation. To fully support organizations in trying to understand and contribute to the global achievement of the SDGs, new standards will be necessary. And these shall be sharper, more focused and pragmatic, so that we can one day hope to reach the United Nations target of “zero hunger”.


1) WHO, Obesity and overweight factsheet (October 2017)

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Source: International Standards Organization

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