Notes from the Field: True Cost Accounting to Accelerate Food Systems Transformation

Guest contribution by Jenn Yates, Director – True Cost Accounting Accelerator (TCA Accelerator) an Allied Initiative of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. 

Billed as one of humanity’s crowning achievements, the world has succeeded in producing seemingly limitless quantities of a certain food, feed, and fuel ingredients. Between 1962 and 2012, global production of rice jumped 321%, beef production rose 214%, soybeans saw an 890% increase, and production of chicken grew by an astonishing 1,193%. These levels of production translated to cheap prices for consumers, and a seemingly endless variety of convenient, processed foods designed to make it easier for busy families.

By the time the Global Alliance for the Future of Food emerged in 2012, it was clear that this success had come at an enormous cost, including enduring or growing levels of diet-related diseases, inequality, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss. And yet these costs were missing from traditional economic indicators, business ledgers, and supermarket prices.

The philanthropic leaders who gathered in 2012 and ultimately created the Global Alliance voted on their priorities for collective action. Addressing the hidden—or “externalized”—costs of food systems ranked first. In the ensuing decade, the Global Alliance acted decisively to elevate the idea of “true cost accounting” (TCA) as a means to unearth and measure externalized costs.

In particular, the Global Alliance invested in the development of the UN Environment Programme’s landmark TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework, a collaboration with 150 scholars from 33 countries. It also funded a number of pilot studies. These studies demonstrated how TCA could shift various stakeholders’ understanding of how farm-level practices, investments, and purchasing practices could achieve better outcomes for people, businesses, and nature.

While this work was underway, other organizations and individuals were developing their own efforts to assess food system impacts holistically. These efforts created a dynamic—though sometimes competing and confusing—set of tools, messages, and research findings. Private and public sector decision-makers interested in conducting TCA assessments faced a daunting barrier to entry. Advocates worried that this lack of cohesion risked having TCA labelled as greenwashing. 

Drawing on its power as a convening body, the Global Alliance initiated an annual TCA “Community of Practice” gathering for players from across philanthropy, civil society, policymaking, business, and academia. The goals were to bring greater harmony and strength to TCA principles and tools, name knowledge gaps, unearth barriers to widespread adoption, and identify opportunities for collective action.

From these conversations, the TCA Accelerator was born. The aim of the TCA Accelerator is to “strengthen and mainstream true cost accounting as the tool of choice by those making decisions on how food is produced and consumed.” In 2021, the Accelerator embarked on projects to identify effective messaging, target audiences, and policy opportunities, and to develop a greater understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in TCA frameworks, tools, and methodologies.

In 2022, the Accelerator initiated efforts with advocates in the UK and India to elevate awareness and understanding of TCA by policymakers in these countries. The Accelerator also launched efforts to shift the narrative around food systems solutions ahead of COP27 and other global dialogues. 

In coordination with the True Value of Food Initiative (affiliated with the UN Food Systems Summit), the Accelerator is leading the development of an international statement of principles to guide government assessments of food systems. We have also carried on the convening role of the Global Alliance, and bring together TCA champions worldwide through virtual learning sessions and in-person engagements.

Led by some of the most prominent leaders in the TCA community, the TCA Accelerator is today an Allied Initiative of the Global Alliance. Generous funding from Global Alliance members enables us to continue strengthening and mainstream TCA approaches. 

The shortcomings of the industrial food system have only become more visible since the Global Alliance was formed. COVID-19, climate change, and the destabilizing effects of various conflicts have exposed the true costs and fragility of our food systems. Meanwhile, inflation and cost-of-living increases have further squeezed marginalized communities. At the same time, case studies from around the globe offer hope for a world weary of bad news and catastrophe. True Cost Accounting is a roadmap to select and scale approaches that benefit people and nature. The TCA Accelerator is already proving to be the catalyst that can unlock the power of this knowledge and incite action that supports food systems transformation worldwide in the years to come.

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