Sustainable Development Goals

Talking SDGs – 12 terms to define the 2030 Agenda

Break time! Children line up for a mid-morning mug of milk at a primary school in El Salvador. The country is expanding its school food programme, part of the Latin America and Caribbean Zero Hunger 2025 initiative. ©FAO

Often bothered, occasionally bewildered, frequently confused. If the magnitude of 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators that make up the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were not tricky enough, the sometimes complex language of development can test the powers of the most able wordmaster. To help break down some of the terminology in FAO’s recently published Transforming Food and Agriculture to achieve the SDGs – 20 interconnected actions to guide decision-makers, here is a brief list of key words and expressions.

Sustainable development

The new dawn. The end of excess. The beginning of world solidarity for people and the planet. This is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development must be sustainability in all three dimensions - social inclusion, economic growth and environmental protection.

Leave no one behind

This is what it’s all about. The rallying cry of the SDGs, leave no one behind means lifting vulnerable people out of poverty and hunger, and reducing inequalities. Making up about 80 percent of the global poor, rural people – smallholder farmers, fishers, foresters, indigenous people and pastoralists – are predominantly those left behind. In the SDG spirit of inclusivity, it can also mean leave no group (age, gender, race), sector (rural), ministry (agriculture) or partner (farmer or private sector) behind in national planning and policy formation.  

Transformational change

Transformation is the other big word of the SDGs. Clearly, this goes beyond mere change to something more profound, akin to a shift in the dominant culture or philosophy. The 2030 Agenda calls for transformation in viewing and doing development. In food and agriculture, transforming means replacing those food production practices that have damaged the planet and failed to feed and nourish the world with new systems built on sustainable approaches. Smallholder participation in decision-making, public-private partnerships and ministries working across sectors are all part of the transformational change mix.

Zero Hunger

Literally, bringing the global number of undernourished people down from more than 800 million to zero by 31 December 2030, the end date of the SDG period. But Zero Hunger means much more. It is the snappy title for SDG2, End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. That basically translates to a whole series of measures focusing on rural development, food systems, biodiversity, nutrition, natural resources – soil, water, forests, oceans - raising the income and productivity of smallholder farmers. These are the roots to a world of Zero Hunger and progress across many other SDGs.

Sustainable agriculture

Nourishing tomorrow’s people requires nurturing the today’s planet. Agriculture has been growing enough food for everyone, but increasingly in a way that is damaging precious natural resources, failing to provide nutritional variety and a fair share to the hundreds of millions of people all over the world who work the land. Sustainable agriculture – sustainable because it balances social, economic and environmental aspects – promotes plentiful, diverse and nutritious food, healthy ecosystems and less damage to the planet while improving the livelihoods of farmers, pastoralists, fisher-folk, foresters and other rural dwellers.


This word has been around for a while. In the context of the SDGs, it means integrating sustainable approaches into national development plans, into budget processes, cross-sector strategies and local level implementation. That includes placing rural people at the centre of stakeholder discussions, policy forums and partnership dialogues. It means normalizing 3-dimensional development thinking within the conventions of government and wider society. This requires making the case that the transformation to sustainable food and agriculture can impact major sectors of society, from improving the livelihoods of the poor to halting natural resource deterioration and contributing to national growth.

Enabling environment

Another loaded term critical to success. Essentially, it involves creating the right conditions for something, read transformation, to happen. To reach Zero Hunger by 2030, those conditions include legal frameworks that recognize and secure rights of access for smallholders and local communities; institutional strengthening through coordination and collaboration across government; policy incentives for private sector engagement in sustainable market activities; new multistakeholder mechanisms and participatory governance platforms to bolster policy ownership; and investments to mobilize capacities, information, technologies and access to financial and production resources.

Interlinkages and nexuses

The golden thread. Knowing the interlinkages among the goals and targets is the first step towards implementing the SDGs. These connections can be transformational in helping to break down the 169 targets into manageable areas to focus integrated policy. Going one step further, a nexus is a cluster of interlinked issues, where any action on one issue will have a positive or negative impact on the others. A nexus approach, like that of climate-water-food-energy, can enhance synergies and minimise trade-offs to offer best solutions for integrated policy-making.

Coalitions and alliances 

Think strength in numbers, and presence across sectors. Coalitions or alliances allow individuals or groups to come together to achieve goals they could not achieve alone. For the small and weak, they offer empowerment, a shared voice, access to resources and a power base to defend their interests. They also help magnify that voice and those interests across boundaries, helping to overcome barriers of bureaucracy and capacity to place their issues into a larger public sphere. Transitioning to more sustainable agriculture and food systems requires action that builds political alliances and coalitions with actors beyond food and agriculture.


This is where grand plans come up against real life issues and conflicting interests. There are few magic policies to wonder progress across all 17 SDGs. The reality instead is that actions may contribute to some SDG targets but affect others. One example is when a country needs to produce more food to feed its population, but must do so without converting forest to agriculture land (deforestation). The right combination of minimizing trade-offs, building on synergies and offering incentives can unlock the door to SDG success. Sustainable food and agriculture approaches aim to find the right balance between achieving food security, conserving natural resources, and improving livelihoods and driving growth.


When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Possessing that bit of stardust needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda, positive synergies occur when actions in two or more areas effect a broader, greater impact to accelerate change. One example is investment in both agriculture and social protection. Social protection measures can lead to increased demand for food, while agricultural interventions can increase local food supply to match that new demand. Resulting agricultural growth improves job opportunities in the sector, and increases food availability, keeping staple food prices low. The two actions combined can ultimately lead to an escape from poverty, better lives and a brighter future.


These are measures that governments, or indeed other stakeholders, can take to encourage actors to pursue a certain path, that is the path to sustainable development. Understanding trade-offs and synergies gives policy-makers a better idea of where to focus incentive structures and plug development gaps. Incentives might be tax-breaks promoting private sector involvement in services that reach remote rural locations. They might take the form of ‘smart’ subsidies to poor farmers to invest in longer-term sustainable land practices, or conditional transfers as payment for environmental services. If the course of true sustainable development does not always run smooth, incentives can help to strike an optimal balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes.



17 Goals to Transform Our World. On 25 September 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including a set of 17 goals, to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. Everyone - governments, businesses, civil society, academia and individual people – has a role to play (and a word to say) in reaching our global goals.




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