Towards a sustainable future - new UN goal to reduce non-communicable diseases

25 September 2015 | Cancer prevention, Policy

Dr Kate AllenDr Kate Allen is Executive Director of Science & Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund International.

We – all of us on planet Earth – face profound challenges for which there are no easy answers: population growth, climate change, increasing demands for food and water, inequality, disease, political instability, war and conflict.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), launched in 2000, were designed to address some of these challenges and make global progress on poverty, education, health, hunger and the environment. They expire this year, with significant progress made across the 8 goals – more than a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty, reduced hunger, increased access to fresh water and reduced child mortality to name just a few success stories. Despite this good news, there have been uneven achievements and shortfalls in some areas. Overall though, the successes of the MDGs showed that global action works - setting the stage for the “post-2015 development agenda”. Integral to this is the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which follow on from, and expand on, the MDGs. They comprise a new set of goals, targets and indicators that UN Member States will use to frame their agendas and public policies over the next 15 years. The SDGs are bolder than the MDGs. Importantly they are universal – applicable to all countries, developed and developing alike.

17 Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 SDGs are designed to tackle the root causes of poverty and do more to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. The new development agenda - Agenda 2030 - (which includes the SDGs), have been formally adopted by Heads of State and Governments at the Sustainable Development Summit today and come into force in January 2016. The Outcome Document, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was agreed by Member States in August after more than three years of intense negotiations and consultations on the scope of future development efforts. The process for developing a global indicator framework is ongoing and is expected to be adopted in March 2016.

First stand-alone goal on non-communicable diseases

Health is accounted for in many places within the Outcome Document. Importantly, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are included as a stand-alone target within the goal on health (target 3.4): By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being. This is really significant, since the MDGs made no specific mention of NCDs. Over the last three years we at World Cancer Research Fund International, in collaboration with many in civil society, have worked to ensure the inclusion of a target on NCD prevention.

Why target on preventing non-communicable diseases is important

Despite the fact that many NCDs are preventable, NCDs - including cancers, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and diabetes - account for 60% of all deaths worldwide, 80% of which occur in low- and middle-income countries. Our own analysis of global research shows that about a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through diet, maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular physical activity. NCD prevention will always be better than cure, and research is now emerging that following our Cancer Prevention Recommendations reduces risk not just of cancer but other NCDs too. Changing lifestyle behaviours will be critical to achieving the target. I am pleased that goal 2 of the SDGs includes a target (2.2) to end all forms of malnutrition – the definition of which encompasses overweight & obesity - as our analysis of global research shows strong evidence that being overweight or obese increases the risk of 10 cancers. We and others continue to advocate for the inclusion of overweight and obesity as an indicator.

Sustainable consumption & production

In addition, goal 12 of the SDGs focuses on developing sustainable consumption and production patterns – which is an area of focus for our Policy & Public Affairs team, who advocate that governments should harness the whole food system, and the sectors which influence it, to improve our food environment and people’s health. Member States can use our NOURISHING framework to develop and implement a comprehensive package of policies to promote healthier diets and reduce obesity levels suitable for their populations. Tremendous progress has been made in developing and agreeing the SDGs. The goals are a road map towards a sustainable future. If we are to deal with the many challenges facing humanity we must embrace them.

View our policy framework to promote healthy environments and reduce obesity, our 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations or follow us at

Dr Kate Allen | 25 September 2015