“We are not on track.”

We’re hearing that phrase often when it comes to several Sustainable Development Goals and Targets. 

For example, In a June session exploring whether a new hunger crisis was inevitable, FAO’s Chief Economist Maximo Torero began his presentation with a slide specifically noting that “we are not on track to ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition” due to key drivers including the pandemic, climate variability and extremes, economic downturns, conflict, and the high cost of healthy diets.

Indeed, in summarizing its 2022 SOFI report (The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World), FAO noted that the 2022 report “should dispel any lingering doubts that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all ifs forms.”  Further, “we are now only eight years away from 2030, but the distance to reach many of the SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) targets is growing wider each year.”

Key bullets drive that gap home.  The SOFI report states that:

  • Between 702 and 828 million citizens faced hunger in 2021 (an increase of 150 million over 2019)
  • About 2.3 billion citizens lacked access to adequate food in 2021
  • In 2030, as opposed to reaching the goal of Zero Hunger, more than 670 million citizens may still be facing hunger

Obviously, these bullets indicate just how far we are from meeting the Zero Hunger goal. 

To meet the goals of SDG 2, the SOFI report calls for a “transformation of agrifood systems” to enable them to deliver lower cost and safe nutritious food such that healthy food is affordable and available to all global citizens.   

I often reflect with dismay that in a world with so much technological capability and connectivity the hunger numbers are moving steadily in the wrong direction – it simply seems nonsensical. 

But we have plenty of other alarming “off track” examples as well.

Specific to nutrition, the 2021 Global Nutrition report found that the world is “off track to meet five out of six global maternal, infant and young children nutrition (MIYCN) targets, on stunting, wasting, low birth weight, anemia, and childhood overweight.”  Further, the world is “off track for meeting all diet-related non-communicable disease targets.” 

The authors call for a “step change” in actions and financial investments to end poor diets and malnutrition.

On land and climate issues, the World Resources Institute assessed 40 indicators in its October 2021 report, State of Climate Action 2021:  Systems Transformations Required to Limit Global Warming to 1.5°C,” noting that none of them are on track to meet 2030 targets. 

The WRI team indicated that while it is still possible to limit global warming to the 1.5° C target, we will need “rapid, far-reaching transformations across every sector” (power, buildings, agriculture, land-use and coastal zone management), coupled with rapid scaling of carbon removal and climate finance, to be successful. 

On energy and emissions, with the release of its World Energy Outlook 2021 report last fall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that announced climate pledges from numerous countries cover “less than 20% of the gap in emissions reductions that needs to be closed by 2030 to keep a 1.5 °C path within reach.”

Further, In July of 2021, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the world is “tremendously off track” to meet the SDGs by 2030.

On climate, he referred to the IPCC report (Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis) one month later as a “code red for humanity.”  That report stated, for example, that “human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe” (as indicated by heatwaves, droughts, extreme precipitation, etc.) and that “with every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger.” 

This past May, Guterres referred to the World Meteorological Organization’s “State of the Global Climate 2021” report as “a dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle the climate crisis.”  The WMO report indicated that four key climate indicators (greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat, and ocean acidification) reached new records in 2021, and that the past seven-year period has been the warmest such period on record. 

And in July, Guterres noted that humanity faces “collective suicide” over the climate crisis, stating that greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, and ocean heat have broken new records due to the world’s fossil fuel addiction, and that “half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires.” 

He warned that “no nation is immune” from the impacts of climate change, adding that he was most troubled by the fact that the world is failing to come together to address the climate crisis in multilateral fashion.

Indeed, in the 2022 edition of The Global Risks Report, respondents ranked climate change, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss as the top three most severe global risks over the next ten years.  Infectious diseases, human environmental damage, and natural resource crises ranked sixth, seventh, and eighth respectively, so SDG-linked risks accounted for six of the top ten risks. 

A Troubling Disconnect

There’s something missing from all of these examples. Something big.

On the plus side, the world has awakened to various crises that are underlying the SDGs – such as food security, climate change, ocean warming, plastics, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.  And we’re increasingly understanding the linkage between them.

We’re getting continual signals of all of these crises, and their negative impact, every day.  It’s nearly impossible to ignore them.

And for the most part, we’re speaking candidly about these crises – and the necessary urgency to address them – rather than denying them

Yet while our words are clearly catching up to the gravity of the situation, the big disconnect remains that our collective actions to address these multiple sustainability crises are not keeping up with what we are expressing through our words. 

Broadly, we know what needs to be done, and we have many of the needed tools along with clear need and economic promise, but we are not acting fast and deep enough on multiple fronts.

In many ways it feels as if we are largely stuck in incremental mode, or in some cases, worse, apathetically clinging to the externality-laden status quo, without embracing the opportunities for transformational change on multiple fronts – particularly in the food sector.

In my view, too many organizations are verbally stating sustainability commitments but failing to set appropriate priorities to enable the deep, transparent action needed to meet those commitments.

And I’m beginning to wonder, are we all getting numb to the many alarm bells we are experiencing every day? 

Are we becoming too comfortable with the words regarding needed action from policymakers and organizational leaders, rather than going further and holding them accountable for corresponding action? 

Or are we simply becoming overwhelmed by the gravity of the words we are hearing, and feeling as if these sustainability challenges are so daunting that they are too uncomfortable to pursue?

Prioritizing the Move from Words to Action

Whatever the case, it’s clear that we need to accelerate the scaling of action and innovation in multiple sectors – food, water, energy, transportation, cities, climate, oceans and more – to advance circular, regenerative, and equitable initiatives while sharply reducing our impact on the planet.

We need to go beyond transformative words to transformative action.

We are in great need of organizational leaders to act with authenticity, recognizing the threats from climate change and other SDG challenges, prioritizing impact on key sustainable development initiatives that are intertwined with their operating models, and setting transformative goals coupled with transformative actions and transparent reporting.

Notably, the Rockefeller Foundation has done just that.

In a July 26th letter entitled “The Climate Crisis and Our Work to Make Opportunity Universal and Sustainable,” Rockefeller’s President Rajiv Shah announced a strategic shift to prioritize organizational focus on addressing the climate crisis. 

In explaining the move, Shah referenced Rockefeller’s early assessment of the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent “hard pivot” to respond via its platform and resources in multiple ways.

That’s big. 

While referring to Covid-19 as a singular (albeit devastating) event, Shah noted that it is just one of numerous crises that are causing suffering among vulnerable populations around the world, and that multiple aspects of climate change (heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods) are already harming the most vulnerable “first and worst.”  He added that life would become unbearable for many of the people the Rockefeller Foundation serves if the world continues with a business as usual approach and the planet warms by three degrees.

And as we know, a business as usual approach to climate change – and many of the critically-linked Sustainable Development Goals – is simply not an option.

Shah also noted that “climate change poses a singular threat to humanity” and to Rockefeller’s mission of promoting well-being throughout the world.  He added that to meet its mission, the Foundation “must directly confront climate change” while redoubling its efforts on health, power, food, and equity.

That’s an important connection, since climate change so clearly threatens food security, health, equity, and development.

And here’s the kicker.  Shah added that “to make opportunity not only universal but also sustainable, the Foundation will, in the years ahead, put climate at the forefront of our programmatic, operational, and investment strategies.”

He goes on to explain the move, noting the human toll to date of one degree of warming, and describing some of the likely impacts of an even greater three degrees of warming, such as increased hunger due to shifts and declines in food production, energy poverty, increased health risks, coastal flooding from rising sea levels, lost productivity, and ultimately, increased instability.

He noted that three degrees of warming would not only reverse most of the progress that the Foundation has achieved to date, but also render additional progress almost impossible to achieve.

And significantly, he adds that Rockefeller will go even further in the years ahead, “making the fight against climate change central to the Foundation’s future.”

Lessons for Business Leaders

This is the correct focus. 

This is the kind of organizational leadership that we need from business and policymakers today.

It is clear that the Rockefeller team has reflected deeply on the threat from climate change.  They have seen the signals, they have heard the words of warning, and they are striving to understand the science. 

They have seen the threat that climate change poses to the core work of the Foundation — and they have prioritized action to address it.

They are also on a learning journey, committed to deep learning about climate change to optimize the organization’s response and benefit humanity.

And they are explaining the why behind their efforts.

In so doing, Shah and the Rockefeller Foundation are providing key lessons for business leaders regarding the importance of making a direct connection between critical sustainability threats (such as climate change and food insecurity) and organizational mission, strategy, action, and impact.

Business leaders must recognize and adapt to the critical sustainability challenges facing the world today – particularly those that are central to their business (ex. water to brewers) – and address them as a core component of organizational strategy. 

They must adapt to the threats, identify how their organization can drive positive impact, communicate the why, report on progress, and commit to constant learning.

They must move beyond incrementalism coupled with transformational words to transformational action.

Failure to do so not only entails missing a colossal opportunity for their organization to thrive, but also threatens their very survival.   

Such leadership requires new thinking and a new risk paradigm.

At the 2022 ReFED Food Waste Solutions Summit, Leanpath’s CEO Andrew Shakman addressed the risk element in a keynote talk exploring why the scaling of food waste reduction efforts, which generate such clear financial and environmental benefits, was not accelerating at a much faster rate globally.

Shakman noted that foodservice organizations need to overcome limiting beliefs and optimize for the long term “right risks” – climate change and food security – rather than perpetually focusing on short term operational risks.  The latter focus keeps operators focused on incremental change efforts at best, and at worst often results in increased waste of food to mitigate other short term risks in daily operations. 

By embracing a high level commitment to the appropriate SDG-linked risks, as Rockefeller has done with climate change, business leaders across all sectors can free their organizations to optimize their impact for society while enhancing the long term viability of their operations.   

We’re seeing never before temperatures, droughts, fires, and floods.  Such extremes call for never before, transformational action to go from “off track” to “on track” on sustainability goals — especially from the business sector.

Who will follow Rockefeller’s lead?


Note – I’m excited to work on these and other critical sustainability challenges – with a focus on the food system – at the Edible Planet Ventures Summit this month.