True Cost Accounting: Takeaways from the Accelerating Climate Solutions podcast

The latest episode of the Accelerating Climate Solutions podcast touches on a topic that is foundational to our work at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. 

Hosted by Ruth Richardson, former executive director of the Global Alliance, and Stefan Schurig from Foundations Platform F20, this sixth episode examines the true cost of food systems with a focus on climate impacts. The industrial food system accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and food systems transformations are a significant opportunity for countries to meet their climate goals. 

This week’s episode focuses on true cost accounting, which I see as both a tool to support food systems transformation and a radical shift in what we measure and value. True cost accounting, or TCA for short, looks at the positive and negative impacts of food and agricultural systems on human health, planetary wellbeing, gender equity, and other social and environmental outcomes. This holistic view offers a more comprehensive understanding of food systems impacts when compared to looking solely at metrics of productivity and financial gain. 

As a tool, TCA can assess the impacts and dependencies that the food system has on natural, social, and human capital. Understanding these factors (and using this knowledge to inform policy and practice) is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and reducing the burden of food systems on the environment. 

Ruth and Stefan sat down with two guests who really got to the heart of the TCA discussion: Pavan Sukhdev, an environmental economist and CEO of GIST Impact, and Sara Farley, vice president of The Rockefeller Foundation’s food team. 

While I recommend listening to the full episode, here are a few of my key takeaways.

  • Sara shared a striking figure from a 2021 report published by The Rockefeller Foundation: the true cost of the U.S. food system is three times higher than current expenditures. For every $1 of value that the food system brings, it comes with $3 of hidden costs to human health, the climate, farmers, fishers, and other food workers. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx households experience these negative impacts most acutely. Accounting for these costs can help guide smart policymaking and save the country millions in the near and long-term future. 
  • We need a dynamic, universal tool to measure the impact of food systems. As policymakers apply TCA, it’s important that they have a common language to describe the range of diverse and complex food and agricultural systems. Pavan introduced the TEEBAgriFood Framework, which was co-designed by 150 people to be this comprehensive, universal, and inclusive tool. Comprehensive, in that it accounts for the climatic, health, and environmental impacts of food systems; universal in that the same framework can be applied to any context worldwide; and inclusive in that its application would ensure the poorest communities have healthy food and lead good lives. 
  • A theme throughout the conversation was the importance of equity, elevating the voices of people and communities that often go unheard, and addressing issues of power. Sara suggested the best way to do this is to reimagine and rebuild systems, granting programs, and approaches alongside the people they’re meant to serve. The episode reminded me of the Global Alliance’s 7 calls to action, the first of which is to ensure inclusive, participatory approaches to governance as a way to address the structural inequities in food systems.
  • True cost accounting is already being used by policymakers around the world to create more healthy, nourishing, and sustainable food systems. Pavan gave the example of Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India. One project in the state is using TCA to evaluate the impacts of natural farming when compared to more intensive agricultural systems. The assessment has found that natural farming leads to higher crop yields, lower incidence of farmer ill health, cost savings on inputs, and better selling of produce. Pavan urged state and provincial governments to take the lead in TCA projects which can be used by all levels of government to re-examine subsidies and inform policymaking. 

It was inspiring to hear Sara and Pavan talk about how TCA is already being used to transform and broaden our understanding of food and agricultural systems. I encourage you to listen to the whole episode. 

Interested in learning more about the TEEBAgriFood Framework and how to apply TCA in your work? The Global Alliance has a step-by-step guide to help food systems leaders and policymakers do this, from initial conceptualization to acting on the results. Another report uses TCA to assess six food-focused initiatives around the world, presenting powerful evidence that food systems transformation is possible. 

Have feedback on this episode of Accelerating Climate Solutions? We’d love to pick up the conversation on Twitter or LinkedIn!

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Lauren Baker
Interim Deputy Director