The Future of Food: True Cost Accounting for Transformative Change

In early April in Brussels, Belgium, 100 diverse business, donor, civil society, research, government, and food system actors came together from around the world to discuss true cost accounting’s role in accelerating transformative change across food systems.

The purpose of the strategic convening was to forge partnerships between individuals and organizations who have the capacity to enhance and amplify the precision, power, and potential of true cost accounting to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems by identifying a shared narrative and aligning priorities.

The objectives of the convening were to:

  1. Advance a shared understanding of how we currently account for the true cost of our food systems through a review of frameworks, methodologies, and applications.
  2. Illuminate the potential of TCA by showcasing examples from agricultural producers, companies, and governments.
  3. Highlight the TEEBAgriFood Framework and its application in different geographies and contexts.
  4. Identify key barriers and opportunities to improve, amplify and apply TCA across food systems, at different scales, and in different geographies.
  5. Develop a shared narrative, identify opportunities to align priorities, and identify resources to take TCA to the next level.
  6. Build a broad network of critical change agents aligned toward shared priorities.

During the three-day meeting, attendees chose to participate in one of seven parallel sessions that explored the application of TCA in different food system contexts, applying the TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework. The sessions included discussions on two significant studies, supported by the Global Alliance: an application of the TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework to Corn Systems in Minnesota, U.S.A.; and a TEEBAgriFood Analysis of the Malawi Maize Agri-food System. These studies will be launched shortly.

Three main outcomes emerged from the convening:

  1. Recognition of the value of TCA, and the TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework as tools for food systems reform.
  2. Development of a shared narrative supporting TCA for food systems.
  3. Commitment to accelerating the application of TCA to food systems

The gathering created space for dynamic conversations that contributed to the development of a narrative on TCA for food systems that will be refined over time. Participants agreed that elements of the narrative should include: understanding the complex and interconnected eco-agri-food chains of the world requires systems thinking; transformation towards greater sustainability of food systems can only be successful if it’s based on a holistic understanding of linkages and dependencies; TCA should unveil the complete picture of positive and negative externalities; food system TCA analysis should not be restricted to the farm alone but applied to the entire food production system and should include cultural, historical dimensions and political economies; these elements do not need to be monetized but are critical and valued; and, of course, there is a need to contextualize TCA applications.

TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework “likely constitutes the most advanced, state-of- the-art model for comprehensive systems evaluation that exists: a multidimensional, integrated, systems-based, and complexity-informed approach.” – Michael Quinn Patton

Finally, the group spent time exploring shared priorities across sectors. What can academics, researchers, and practitioners do to strengthen TCA? What can be done to help the private sector embrace TCA? What is the investment case for TCA? What can be done to support and enable governments in adopting TCA to inform policy, investments, and more? What role can CSOs play in ensuring the power of TCA as a driver of food systems transformation is realized? How can raising the visibility of TCA inform global policy processes?

A synthesis of the discussions at the Brussels convening is being prepared, and will be shared with a broader network of stakeholders through mechanisms such as webinars and smaller meetings, with the goal of socializing, further developing, and refining the ideas.

We are thrilled to share a review of the TEEBAgriFood Synthesis and Scientific and Economic Foundations Reports by Michael Quinn Patton published in the American Journal of Evaluation. Quinn Patton states that the TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework “likely constitutes the most advanced, state-of- the-art model for comprehensive systems evaluation that exists: a multidimensional, integrated, systems-based, and complexity-informed approach.”

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Lauren Baker at