Together with Ian McConnel, Josefina Eisele and Simon Hall, I have had the pleasure of presenting the goals to a number of national roundtables, as well as through the working groups.
More recently, there has been considerable discussion on the UN Food Systems Summit, which is calling for a radical shift in the way food is produced and consumed around the world, in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
I have been thinking about these two sets of goals recently and how they relate to each other, as well as the meaning of sustainability (see this LinkedIn post for some thoughts on sustainability). GRSB was established because many of the companies and producers involved in the industry saw a need for continuous improvement in various aspects of the industry and recognised that such improvements have been taking place for years and need to be continued and geographically widespread.
I see two main reasons for our success to date:
- A whole industry approach, with acknowledgement given to the fact that some external stakeholders such as NGOs and academia can help us to be realistic about issues and help us find solutions, and
- A focus on continuous improvement. Why is the latter so important?
A look at human development over the last several decades shows that it is, in general, an incremental process. Lifting people out of poverty should be the goal of all of us, because that is what can deliver a truly sustainable future. There is nothing sustainable about being poor.
You are all familiar with the 'hockey stick" curve of climate change, but a similar graph can be plotted for escape from poverty. In his book "Enlightenment Now," Steven Pinker shows that this progress was not the result of some planned transformation, but incremental evolutions in technology, trade and the institutions that supported them as well as a move to the recognition that human development mattered and was desirable.
Another way to look at income is here, where it is shown that income (and it's corollary inequality) follows a relatively normal distribution. Despite periodic blips caused by recessions, trends have been upwards, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined.
A negative view of such economic progress would be that it has destroyed the planet. This is one espoused by David Attenborough in his recent "A Life On Our Planet," and no one can deny that human activity has had an enormous impact on biodiversity, climate and other aspects of the natural world.
However, a look at the Environmental Performance Index shows that:
"A number of striking conclusions emerge from the 2020 EPI rankings and indicators. First, good policy results are associated with wealth (GDP per capita), meaning that economic prosperity makes it possible for nations to invest in policies and programs that lead to desirable outcomes. This trend is especially true for issue categories under the umbrella of environmental health, as building the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises yields large returns for human well-being. Second, the pursuit of economic prosperity – manifested in industrialisation and urbanisation – often means more pollution and other strains on ecosystem vitality, especially in the developing world, where air and water emissions remain significant. But at the same time, the data suggest countries need not sacrifice sustainability for economic security or vice versa."
I have been heartened by books such as Pinker's, and Hans & Ola Rosling's "Factfulness", both because they demonstrate that human progress continues despite the pessimism of many and the fact that media outlets prefer to report crises than prosperity, and that it is based on the sort of continuous improvement that we encourage through the roundtable, rather than wholesale centralised control and system replacement.
I strongly believe that goals can help us improve the things that need improving. They can help us focus. I also believe that they can be reached.