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Agroecology in Andhra Pradesh, India: Unveiling Hidden Costs and Benefits through True Cost Accounting

Food systems debates and discourse are often skeptical about agroecology and regenerative approaches, arguing that there is a lack of research and evidence that demonstrate its potential to scale up and feed the world. There is in fact a wealth of evidence showing that these approaches can repair our relationship with nature and build climate resilience while producing nourishing and sustainable food. 

Recently, the Global Alliance partnered with GIST Impact to use the TEEBAgriFood framework developed by the UN Environment Program – and apply True Cost Accounting (TCA) – to measure the impacts of the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming project, which has transitioned over 630,000 farmers to agroecology. 

The study, launching in July, evaluated a wide range of factors, including ecosystems, agricultural lands, pastures, labour, infrastructure, technology, policies, cultures, traditions, incomes, diets, and institutions involved in the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. 

Conducting a comprehensive analysis that compared various agroecological, chemical-intensive and traditional agricultural approaches that are practiced across the state, we gained clear insights into the various impacts of these different systems. The analysis demonstrated that the agroecological practices and principles of natural farming generated the most beneficial economic, environmental and social outcomes, resulting in 49% net increases in farmer incomes, increased diet diversity, and yes, even 11% higher yields. Altogether, the study showed the highest positive returns on public investment from agroecological natural farming. This is good news for the government of Andhra Pradesh, India, whose agroecological transformation programme aims to transition all of the state’s six million farmers from chemical-based agriculture to community-managed natural farming. 

These findings challenge the pervasive notion that fossil-fuel-based agricultural intensification is the necessary solution to feed a growing global population. This True Cost Accounting study not only highlights the ability of agroecology to feed the world but also underscores its capacity to address critical sustainability challenges while promoting equitable and thriving communities.

Since the Green Revolution, decisions that shape our food systems have been based on the narrow metrics of yield and calories. Food systems have the potential to deliver so much more, and not at the expense of the well-being of people and our planet. Transforming global food systems at the level of urgency required calls for us to rethink what evidence, metrics, and narrative underpins our worldviews. To achieve this transformation, we must bring to light the full suite of hidden costs and benefits embedded in our food systems. Traditional economic productivity metrics fail to account for negative impacts, such as habitat destruction, soil erosion, water contamination, displacement of farmers and Indigenous Peoples, and rising diet-related diseases. They also overlook the positive impacts of agroecology, such as carbon sequestration, insect pollination, resilience to natural disasters, reinforced local economies, improved nutrition, and the creation of equitable and healthy communities. 

The TEEBAgriFood framework, developed by the UN Environment Program, establishes a universal, inclusive, and comprehensive approach to True Cost Accounting, which reveals the complexity and diversity of food and agriculture systems. 

Assessing and understanding the multidimensional costs and benefits of different food systems requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach, and this is where True Cost Accounting comes in. True Cost Accounting is a systematic approach to measuring the environmental, social, health and economic impacts of food systems. Rather than focusing on just simple yield or production metrics, it explores the many different costs and benefits that a food system or practice has, revealing the breadth of so-called ‘externalities’, positive and negative.

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Amanda Jekums, Program Coordinator, Global Alliance for the Future of Food