Promoting dietary diversity to achieve the 'zero hunger' goal

Since 2015, global progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, which aims to eradicate world hunger under the banner 'zero hunger', has fallen behind schedule. This was the conclusion reached at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which began on 8 July in New York. Addressing global hunger and malnutrition requires not only sufficient food quantity but also ensuring food quality. As the quality of nutritional intake is not currently measured under SDG 2 of the 2030 Agenda, Switzerland, in collaboration with other countries and UN agencies, has proposed adding a new measurement indicator.

Two women in red and yellow veils stand in front of their fruit stall. Shelves full of fruit and vegetables surround them.

A variety of foods are sold at the Magomeni market in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. © SDC

Poor diet has long been recognised as a major risk factor for various health issues. Combating all forms of malnutrition is necessary. Food insecurity can affect diets in different ways, increasing the risk of both undernourishment – for example, stunted growth in children – and overweight. Moreover, the number of calories available for consumption, as calculated using existing indicators, does not provide information on food accessibility or individual consumption patterns. This fails to give an accurate picture of the nutritional quality of diets, food distribution and equality of access to food.

Unhealthy diets are the main cause of health problems and disease worldwide, and diversity is a fundamental pillar of a healthy diet. Poorly diversified diets increase the risk of micronutrient deficiencies, particularly in children and women, which can compromise health and physical and cognitive development. Currently, the indicators used to assess global hunger and malnutrition focus solely on food quantity, neglecting qualitative aspects of food consumption, such as dietary diversity. The absence of a food quality indicator means that the importance of healthy diets in achieving the 2030 Agenda is underestimated, and that evidence-based action to improve nutrition and health through diet is severely limited.

Experts and governments have been working for several years to develop a new indicator that measures the quality of food consumed as part of SDG 2. It is a complex measure that still needs further research and validation.  Switzerland has supported the development of a simple, cost-effective method to measure dietary diversity, a key aspect of food quality. On 29 April, Switzerland, in collaboration with Brazil, Bangladesh and Malawi, and with technical support from key multilateral agencies (FAO, WHO, UNICEF, IFAD and WFP), formally proposed including a minimum dietary diversity indicator under SDG 2. This proposal was presented to the international community at several events in Rome and New York on the margins of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (see box). This indicator, known by its English acronym MDD (minimum dietary diversity), is already being used in programme monitoring and evaluation to inform policies and programmes in many countries. The aim is to implement it on a wider scale.

Many women surround a cauldron over a fire in Tanzania. In the centre, a cook stirs the water and the grains to be cooked.
Women cook ancient varieties of grain during a demonstration in Tanzania. © SDC

Creating a bridge between the world of statistics and sustainable food

The Federal Statistical Office (FSO) is set to chair the UN Statistical Commission and is a member of the expert and inter-agency group on SDG indicators for the 2024–25 period. In this particular role, the FSO has worked closely with the Statistics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to introduce this new diversity indicator as part of the periodic review of indicators. 

Selecting indicators to measure progress on sustainable development involves a complex process of scientific, technical and political discussions. Regarding SDG 2, the issues involve the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Rome mission to the UN agencies linked to food (FAO, WFP, IFAD), and the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York.

High-level meeting to accelerate sustainable development

Since 2012, the annual High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development in New York has convened the UN system, governments, NGOs, and scientists to review progress on the 17 SDGs set out in the 2030 Agenda.

This year's Swiss delegation was led by Markus Reubi, deputy head of the FDFA's Prosperity and Sustainability Division and Federal Council delegate for the 2030 Agenda, in his capacity as state secretary. Daniel Dubas (Federal Office for Spatial Planning ARE), representatives of the SDC, the Federal Social Insurance Office (FSIO), the FSO and civil society (Caritas) completed the delegation.

Switzerland organised an event to discuss the importance of diversified diets and their measurement, supported by Costa Rica, Malawi, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.

Introducing a new measure of sustainable development: an indicator of dietary diversity

Switzerland is politically committed to empowering national and global decision-makers and stakeholders to monitor and ensure access to healthy diets for both populations and the planet. In collaboration with its partners and with the support of several countries, Switzerland has made considerable efforts over the last ten years to contribute to this goal. For example, Switzerland has supported efforts to make data collection easier, such as the Global Diet Quality Project, which is faster and therefore less costly. This data can then be applied on a global scale, facilitating comparisons between countries and regions and contributing to the early identification of trends.

Incorporating the 'prevalence of minimum dietary diversity' indicator into SDG 2 would address a significant data gap in assessing nutritional quality. The inclusion of a new indicator can help to guide the actions needed not only to achieve the 'zero hunger' goal, but also to ensure good nutrition, health and development for populations, upon which all the SDGs are based.

The work of political and scientific dialogue to encourage the addition of a new indicator is currently strengthening action on the ground and in the countries concerned. This approach contributes to other improvements: encouraging an increase in the supply of and demand for healthy food, changing prices to make healthy food more affordable, reorienting policies, adapting food infrastructures, changing individual and collective behaviour and, finally, curbing malnutrition in all its forms. 2025 represents the last opportunity to add this indicator before the end of the 2030 Agenda.

 

Veiled women busy themselves around a stall selling various grains in a tent in Niger.
Old varieties of grain are sold under a tent in Niger, in a difficult climate and nutrition context. © SDC

Transforming the way people source and eat in the long term – the example of the Crops for Healthier Diets project

Since 2020, the SDC has supported the Consumption of Resilient Orphan Crops and Products for Healthier Diets (CROPS4HD) project, implemented by SWISSAID and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), which aims to influence individual behaviour, markets, social organisation and access to knowledge and innovation. The CROPS4HD project aims to increase demand for underutilised and neglected crop varieties. The project's interventions seek to increase awareness and understanding of the health benefits of certain crops and a more diversified diet. The project also encourages more direct links between consumers and producers, and gives preference to short, agrobiodiverse value chains.

The project focuses on three key elements: genetic diversity, agronomy and agro-ecological production, and the organisation of farmers and seed systems. It promotes outreach and the horizontal exchange of knowledge between farmers and joint learning in farmer field schools. As a result, farmers will eventually be able to produce crop varieties that are more nutritious and more resistant to climate change, both for their own households and for local markets.

The project is also active at various political levels: local, national, sub-regional and international. There is often a gap in understanding among government officials and policymakers regarding the realities faced by smallholder farmers and their legal obligation to protect farmers' rights. Consequently, the project is gathering best practices to better inform policy decisions. This initiative is helping farmers and their organisations to play a more active role in their own development, through greater dialogue with policymakers.

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