Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Why Europe’s leading organic produce distributor champions True Cost Accounting

A trip to the supermarket is full of decisions. We choose what we’d like to eat for dinner, yes, but we also reflect on which fruits and vegetables to buy. Beyond taste preference, our decision-making ability is often limited to looking at price. Do we opt for a conventionally-grown tomato, or do we instead select an organic variety?

Volkert Engelsman says consumers don’t have nearly enough information to make this decision: “If consumers would know what change they can trigger by buying food, that would be tremendous. The trouble is, they don’t.”

Engelsman is the Founder and Managing Director of Eosta, Europe’s leading importer, packer, and distributor of sustainable, organic, and fair trade fruits and vegetables. Established in 1990 and headquartered in the Netherlands, Eosta’s distribution channels stretch around the world, with relationships across six continents and with more than 1,000 organic growers.

To ensure all of its products and growers meet the company’s high standards for distribution, Eosta uses the Sustainability Flower, a quick evaluation tool that monitors the performance of growers against ecological and social indicators.

With vegetables and fruit sold under its consumer brand Nature & More, the private company makes it possible for consumers to trace its products, enabling them to make well-informed purchases at prices fair to producers, society, and the environment.

Eosta’s True Cost of Food campaign

Eosta champions True Cost Accounting (TCA). TCA is about calculating the hidden costs of the food we eat and making the economic case for sustainable food systems.

For example, a conventionally-grown pomegranate is almost guaranteed to have a lower price tag in store than a pomegranate sold under Eosta’s Nature & More brand. What that price tag doesn’t account for, however, are the effects that piece of fruit had on the health of the soil, the pollution of waterways, and other externalities (costs paid by society as a whole).

The in-store price doesn’t consider that the conventional pomegranate may have been picked by an under-paid farm worker, or that in going to work that farmer was exposed to harmful pesticides that also polluted a nearby stream. These are the natural, social, and human capital costs of food production, that are rarely factored into the final shelf price of products.

Supported by a number of partners, including another Beacon of Hope, Hivos, Eosta launched its True Cost of Food campaign in 2017. The accompanying pilot study assessed and attached a price tag to compare conventional farming versus organic farming. With help from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization tools, Eosta measured the positive and negative externalities of both farming methods on livelihoods, health, soil fertility, water management, biodiversity, and mitigation of climate change.

One calculation demonstrated that organic apples offer consumers €0.19 per kilogram in cost savings around health. To obtain this calculation, the study examined the consumer health impact of pesticide exposure and farm worker safety. “Buy organic apples and save 27 sick days (per hectare and year),” stated a cheeky campaign ad in which a grocery consumer was shown reaching for an apple from a hospital bed.

At a much larger scale, the hidden environmental damage and social costs of the world’s current food system is estimated at US $4.8 trillion. “As long as we keep externalizing costs to the future generation, we will not succeed in providing mankind with food in a sustainable way,” explains Engelman in a video interview.

The goal of the True Cost of Food campaign was to create evidence and enable consumers to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting organic growers. The study was also about communicating the externalities of the food system using a language that policymakers typically understand: a dollar figure.

In-store education

In addition to its TCA assessments, Eosta has launched a number of innovative tools to make it easier and more fun for consumers to eat healthy.

Under its Dr. Good Food campaign, Eosta created VitaPlate, a tool and website where grocery shoppers in the Netherlands can learn more about the components of a well-balanced plate: half fresh fruits and vegetables, a quarter cereals and potatoes, and a quarter protein. By partnering with Ekoplaza, a Dutch organic supermarket chain, the initiative nudges consumers into making healthier, plant-based choices.

In addition to VitaPlate, Eosta’s produce include a unique numbered code that supermarket shoppers can input into the brand’s website. Shoppers are then directed to an information page about the grower where they can learn about their environmental impact and even access the farmer’s favourite recipe. By re-establishing the connection between consumer and grower, Eosta is creating more aware and mindful shoppers.

With its many campaigns and contributions to the True Cost Accounting space, Eosta demonstrates the important leadership role that a private, multinational company can play in driving sustainability.