The United Nations (UN) General Assembly, on Friday 25th September 2105, formally adopted the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN Headquarters in New York City. This global ‘2030 Agenda’ is described as a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” and “seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”, building on the earlier Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs are “the result of over two years of intensive public consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world”, and were reviewed (and the review reportedly ignored) by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The 17 goals and the 169 targets within them will come into effect at the beginning of 2016.

Bold and broad aims

The bold and broad aims “seek to realize the human rights of all”. Some key terms which caught our eye in the preamble and ‘declaration’, were the fulfillment of human potential, respect for cultural diversity, human dignity, harmony with nature, access to quality healthcare, extending life-expectancy, reducing infant, child and maternal mortality, safe and nutritious food, safe drinking water, universal access to sustainable energy, a healthy environment, protecting the planet and land from degradation, sustainable consumption and production, sustainable management of natural resources, safer use of chemicals, sustainable agriculture, protection of biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife, supporting smallholder farmers, urgent action on climate change, technological progress in harmony with nature, and; “a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want, where all life can thrive”.

Sounds promising, no? But as with anything, the devil is in the detail. The problem is there is none.

Goal 3: Good health and well-being

The health goal aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, with efforts required to “fully eradicate a wide range of diseases, and address many different persistent and emerging heath issues”. To achieve this, targets specify universal health coverage, access to “quality essential health-care services”, a substantial increase in health financing, development and training of “the health workforce in developing countries”, and “safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”. In addition the targets specify support for “research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and noncommunicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries” and “to provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines…in particular, provide access to medicines for all”.

The supporting facts and figures include the claim that “Since 2000, measles vaccines have averted nearly 15.6 million deaths”. These pharma based targets indicate that it’s business as usual —profits before people in the health area, and these targets do little to instill confidence in this goal. And plenty of vaccines, presumably as many as possible.

Goal 2: Zero hunger

This goal claims “A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish today’s 795 million hungry and the additional 2 billion people expected by 2050”. It aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by offering “key solutions for development”. Ummm…. genetically modified (GM) crops, anyone?

Having said that, it’s a plus that the role of small farms is acknowledged, as is the problem of loss of crop diversity. But the biotech industry and governments have found various ways of associating biotech with smallholder farming.

Targets include doubling “the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers” through “productive resources and inputs”, ensuring “sustainable food production systems” and implementing “resilient agricultural practices”. Much of this, as well as increased investment in agricultural research and technology development, and the correction and prevention of “trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets”, further hint that solutions include a rollout of GM.

Goal 15: Life on land

This goal aims to “Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss”. Included in the facts and figures was the statement “As many as 80 per cent of people living in rural areas in developing countries rely on traditional plant-based medicines for basic healthcare”. This is a key statement, but other than, quite rightly, setting out targets for protection of land, soil, ecosystems, flora, fauna and biodiversity, there appears to be no provision anywhere for the management of health using traditional herbs, and the protection of the human right to do so.

Opening up world trade and wi-fi rollout

Goal 9, on the subject of industry, innovation and infrastructure, includes the target “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”. A noble aim for inclusive access, but we can expect a huge increase in the rollout of wi-fi, and with it, increased risks from electromagnetic radiation.

Goal 17 about ‘Partnerships’, includes the target: “Promote a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization, including through the conclusion of negotiations under its Doha Development Agenda”. If you thought Codex trade guidelines were bad enough, perhaps there is worse to come.

How will these goals be implemented?

The UN declaration also states “we are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda” and “with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people”. Full implementation is required by 2030, by means of the ‘Global Partnership for Sustainable Development’ supported by specific policies and actions.

It is stressed that the Agenda will “be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of States under international law”, while “respecting national policies and priorities”. Governments will be playing key roles along with public institutions, regional and local authorities, international and other institutions, “academia, philanthropic organisations, volunteer groups and others”. This will be done through the ‘strengthening’ of public policies, regulatory frameworks and their ‘coherence’, “and finance at all levels”, including public finance and the private sector. Business “activity, investment and innovation” is considered vital, and the potential of science, technology and innovation will be harnessed, “closing technology gaps and scaling up capacity-building at all levels”. In addition, there is recognition for a need to transfer “environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms”. An international economic environment will be enabled, “including coherent and mutually supporting world trade, monetary and financial systems, and strengthened and enhanced global economic governance”.

Cause for concern

Whilst there was fanfare at the UN headquarters this past weekend, press coverage has been fairly low key. There has been no shortage of criticism for the SDGs, and they clearly lack transparency.

This open letter was circulating prior to the signing of the goals, and states: “they do not represent the best interests of the world’s majority”. The letter points out that an essential task is for the “world’s nations to adopt a saner measure of human progress; one that gears us not towards endless GDP growth based on extraction and consumption, but towards the wellbeing of humanity and our planet as a whole.” Although the letter focuses mostly on the issue of poverty, our article shows that there are many other areas of concern within the goals. We believe, sadly, that whilst some of the SDGs may be noble and indeed necessary, the general thrust and likely intended interpretation by governments and big business is not only highly questionable, but also unattainable —and certainly not sustainable!

As far as opportunities for the people of the world to thrive and manage their health by natural means are concerned, we may have to work harder to counter the corporate steamroller that is expected to be unleashed, especially on less developed, and economically more vulnerable, countries.

If we sit idle, it is an inescapable fact that the fundamental rights and freedoms of an ever increasing sector of the world’s population will be trampled into the dust for the sake of corporate profits and control.