Building our collective understanding of the true cost of food

In June 2018, the TEEBAgriFood Scientific and Economic Foundations Report was launched prior to World Environment Day in New Delhi, India. The intellectual and theoretical foundations for the TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework are developed in this report. And with this framework, we have an important opportunity to test the power and potential of true cost accounting across food and agriculture systems.

Applying the TEEBAgriFood framework
There are a number of applications of the TEEBAgriFood framework underway, focused on making visible the full costs of food by investing in efforts to identify, measure, and value the positive and negative environmental, social, and health externalities of food and agricultural systems, and to deploy innovative strategies to effect associated policy and market change.

Studies led by UN Environment include analyzing wheat value chains in northern India and livestock and soy/maize value chains in Brazil. The TEEBAgriFood valuation framework is also being applied to several countries in Africa, as well as in Colombia, Thailand, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico, financed by the European Commission Partnership Instrument, European Commission and German International Climate Initiative.

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food is also supporting two application studies: an application of the framework to Malawi’s Farm Income Subsidy Program by Stephanie White from Michigan State University, and an application of the framework to conventional and organic corn systems in the Mississippi basin by Harpinder Sandhu, from Flinders University. In support of this work, the Sustainable Food Trust is undertaking a study to analyze on-farm sustainability metrics with the overall objective to catalyse an international architecture with a common framework for measuring and valuing sustainability of farming and food systems.

“High volatility characterizes maize markets, diets are poorly diversified, malnutrition among children remains high, and poverty levels have increased in recent years. In addition, environmental resource stocks such as agrobiodiversity and soil fertility, which are particularly critical to smallholder farmers who are not able to easily access purchased inputs, are deteriorating due to the continuous cropping of hybrid maize on small tracts of land.” Stephanie White, MSU, USA

Maize in Malawi
The notion that maize is central to food security in Malawi is a widely held view. To date, however, ‘maize-led development’ has produced disappointing outcomes. The study provides an overview of the historical, political, environmental context of the maize agrifood system in Malawi, and uses the TEEBAgriFood framework to analyze maize in relation to three distinct parameters: input stocks and flows, fertility stocks and flows, and maize stocks and flows. It explores the costs of remaining beholden to a maize-centric agrifood system, as well as the factors that keep this system in place despite calls for agricultural diversification.

Corn in the Mississippi Basin
In this study of corn in the Mississippi basin, the TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework is applied to understand and value links between produced, social, human and natural capital in two production systems. The study evaluates the true costs and benefits associated with conventional and organic corn production systems by examining all impacts and dependencies within the value chains. This analysis supports policy and practice in order to improve corn production systems and minimise impacts on environment and human health in the Mississippi basin.

“The linkages between four capitals and various impacts and dependencies in corn production systems are being further investigated to analyze farm, environmental and health policies and other system drivers related to corn production. The costs and benefits evaluated in the two corn production systems will be used to develop recommendations for appropriate end users, including farmers and policymakers.” Harpinder Sandhu, Flinders University, Australia

Harmonizing sustainability assessment and metrics on farms
The Sustainable Food Trust is working with a small group of farmers and land managers in the United Kingdom to begin developing a harmonised framework and common language for assessing the sustainability of all farming systems.

“At present, most farmers and land managers participate in multiple and overlapping sustainability assessment schemes, required to satisfy several different stakeholders, including government, certifiers and food companies. It has been estimated that worldwide there are more than 100 different on-farm sustainability assessment tools in existence, as a result of which food producers are subjected to unnecessary bureaucracy, time and expense in meeting these compliance requirements,” says Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust, United Kingdom.

More information about the Global Alliance’s work on true cost accounting can be found, here. And a number of interviews and articles are available on TEEBAgriFood, speaking to the power and potential of TCA to transform food systems. Interviews with report authors and Facebook live interviews with Ruth Richardson and Pavan Sukhdev are available through these links. Original op-eds were published in Reuters, InterPress Service, and Grist.