Hunger – a wicked problem

While significant advances have been made in combatting hunger and malnutrition globally since the turn of the century, the scale of the problem is such that hundreds of millions of people are still undernourished. And with the world’s population expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, the challenge to ensure food sustainability and security is absolutely critical.

Story by Russell Gilbert

The number of undernourished people in the world fell from 15 per cent in the period 2000-2002 to 11 per cent in 2014-2016. In percentage terms the decline is significant. In real terms, however, this still means that around 793 million people are undernourished globally. To give you a sense of the enormity of the problem, that number is close to the populations of the USA, Indonesia and Brazil combined.


Sustainable development goals


According to the United Nations, ending hunger ‘demands sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices.’ Of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the aim of Goal 2 is to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.’ But how is that to happen?


Rob van Tulder, professor of international business-society management at RSM and academic director of the school’s Partnerships Resources Centre, believes we tend to consider food security and sustainability as being largely technical problems. ‘In looking for solutions, the focus can be too narrow,’ he says.


A wicked problem

‘Ending hunger, ensuring food security and encouraging sustainable agriculture is much more complex than that.’ Instead, it is, he says, a “wicked problem” – a term that was first formally defined by academics Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a 1973 management article, and used to describe problems that have multiple and complex causes for which traditional approaches to solutions do not work.

‘It is a wicked problem because in addition to the technology aspects, societal groups are involved, and politics plays a part. Hunger isn’t only related to a lack of food: complex systems underpin the production and distribution of what the world eats,’

Prof. Van Tulder explains. ‘It’s a nexus of issues: it’s systemic. Hunger and food security are connected to poverty, agriculture and food production, land use ownership, supply chains, politics, peace, environmental and climate concerns, and much more. This means hunger and food security are inextricably interlinked with all of the UN SDGs.’

Structural complexity

Considering the incredibly complex factors involved, Prof. Van Tulder states that hunger and food sustainability must be considered and tackled as societal problems.

‘Given the structural complexity of all wicked problems, there is no one solution: instead, particular approaches need to be taken and stimulated. This is where governments, civil society organisations and companies must act together – form smart partnerships – to define, develop and deliver common solutions,’ he says.


For businesses, Prof. Van Tulder explains, international value chains represent a means through which sustainability can be driven: ‘For this to work in commodity value chains where consumers are the end recipients, companies – whether it’s a supermarket like Albert Heijn or a food processing company like Unilever – must be willing and able to take the lead in developing sustainable supply chains. Companies dealing with smallholders must not only consider whether they are paying a fair price – a price enabling individual suppliers and their communities to live sustainably – but also whether they support their suppliers to develop sustainable business models themselves.

The ability to diversify thereby proves particularly crucial for suppliers: diversify to different customers, commodity chains, and markets – local as well as global. Diversification strengthens the communities involved, encourages their longer term survival, and in turn creates a more resilient value chain.’

Flawed system

Adding to the complexity of ensuring food sustainability and security for all, Prof. Van Tulder observes that the food system of the world is basically broken.

‘Fortunately, multinationals like Nestlé and Unilever have already acknowledged that fundamental failures exist in the system,’ he says. ‘We have a strange system actually capable of supplying enough food to everyone, yet around one billion people on this planet are still hungry, undernourished and lack sufficient nutrients in their diet.’

Wasted food

Prof. Van Tulder also points to the perverse fact that at the same time as so many people on the planet have insufficient food, around 1.4 billion people are obese. ‘And in the value chain that exists between producers, processors, distributors, retailers and consumers, around 40 per cent of all food is wasted: first during distribution and secondly during the consumption stage. Fundamentally, the system is deeply flawed,’ he says.

While understanding the system is broken, companies, even when they are the most important players in value chains, increasingly admit they cannot fix things on their own. They see partnerships as the way forward. Thus they look to ally with governments, with initiatives such as the UN’s World Food Programme, and with non-governmental organisations – like Oxfam – that seek to secure the best interests of smallholder growers and producers.

Partnerships and prosperity

This approach is in line with SDG 17, in which partnering and co-operation is seen as driving the goals forward. This approach highlights the five basic principles underpinning all SDGs, which are people, planet, peace, partnerships and prosperity. This, Prof. Van Tulder says, is a step beyond the Triple-P model of people, planet and profit.

‘In the 5-P model, profit is replaced by prosperity, which is better; otherwise the emphasis is on profit maximisation, which has never been the real aim of companies. Profit is a means – not a goal in itself,’ Prof. Van Tulder explains. ‘I consider partnering to be the facilitator for the other four Ps. Taken together, the 5-Ps create the dynamics by which all the SDGs can be addressed,’ he says.

Shareholder value

But there is much work to be done on the road to 2030. ‘Unfortunately, we’re still in a time where not enough companies are seeing the bigger picture because they’re too focused on the short term or are focused on just one part of the value chain. However, that is slowly changing as more lead companies wake up to the fact that they have a societal responsibility to strategize for long term sustainability,’ he says.

‘And shareholders are also seeing it this way to some degree. BlackRock, the largest asset management corporation in the world, assesses its portfolio on the basis of the sustainability efforts of the companies it invests in. That’s significant when you know they only invest in Fortune 500 companies,’ he observes. Closer to home, Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP is also trying to take a sustainable approach to investing. ABP chair Corien Wortmann-Kool spoke about it at the RSM Leadership Summit. She was also featured in RSM Outlook Winter 2017.

Real difference

In summary, Prof. Van Tulder believes that in spite of the need for more progress, he’s happy with SDG 2: ‘The aims are much more ambitious than the earlier Millennium Development Goal, which only aimed to halve extreme poverty and hunger. SDG 2 goes much farther in that it seeks not just to alleviate hunger, but also addresses food systems and therefore food security, which is absolutely essential if we are to make a real difference.’

Prof. Van Tulder is currently working on The sustainable development goals: a framework for effective corporate involvement, which will be published as part of the RSM Series on Positive Change this summer.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

Business-Society Management , Faculty & Research , International , Newsroom , RSM Outlook , Sustainability , Partnerships Resource Centre , Positive change , 2018 Summer RSM Outlook