True price of coffee is on the menu in Amsterdam

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


In February 2020 in Amsterdam, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food brought together 45 global experts committed to accelerating true cost accounting (TCA) methods and approaches as a means to create sustainable food systems.

TCA is one of our flagship focus areas at the Global Alliance. We believe it is a fundamental component of food systems transformation, reinforcing the urgent need for change and facilitating change at the scale and speed required. TCA is a scientifically validated systemic approach that reveals the full range of costs and benefits arising from different agricultural and food systems. To do this, it assesses the impacts on people, communities, livelihoods, and the environment across four capitals: natural, social, human, and produced. This approach enables farmers, governments, institutions, businesses, civil society, and researchers to make better-informed decisions that support transformations towards more sustainable and healthy food systems.

In Amsterdam, we spent two days focusing on the tools, resources, and pathways needed to accelerate awareness and uptake, and how to integrate the methods and approaches into food and agricultural policy. It was the fourth gathering of a community of TCA practitioners and innovators. Through a multitude of discussions and workshops, we made significant progress on the projects that will support the practical application of TCA across sectors and scales. It included exploring creative ways to share case applications of TCA, like the recently published study of corn systems in Minnesota, U.S.A., by Harpinder Sandhu and the Malawi maize agri-food system by Stephanie White.

The convening was hosted by True Price Foundation at their newly opened True Price Store, which was launched to coincide with this special gathering of global policymakers, funders, businesses, researchers, and farmers that we had convened. We were also joined by a number of local Dutch retailers and organizations advancing TCA in the Netherlands.

Located in the heart of the city, the store sells everyday goods — like coffee and chocolate — using transparent pricing that allows consumers to see the social and environmental impacts of the products and to pay for improvements. The experience of seeing the costs brings to life the critical questions we should be grappling with when it comes to the price of our food: is the farmer who grows these coffee beans able to support herself and her family? What impact does this chocolate have on the land and water of the community that grows the cacao beans?

The viability and sustainability of food systems are often distorted by significant externalities. The way our food systems operate has numerous impacts on the resilience and health of humans, animals, communities, ecosystems, agricultural lands, waters, and seas, which are largely unaccounted for and invisible to the regular consumer. The true cost movement calls for both the negative and positive cost impacts to be practically factored into food prices, policies, and business practices. Only by understanding and addressing the full picture, from farm to fork, can we transform systems and deliver a future of food that is equitable, sustainable, and healthy for everyone.

To do this, it is critical that we expand how we assess success in food systems beyond the reductive “yield-per-hectare” measure of value that literally distorts what we see and what we put a price on. TCA, by comparison, provides a holistic food system evaluation. Although the problems of our food systems are interconnected and complex, true cost accounting approaches and methodologies are designed to manage this complexity and show us the true value of our food.

The gathering in Amsterdam confirmed that there is growing and intensifying demand among farmers, investors, business, and private sector for tools and resources to assess and communicate the costs and benefits of different food systems.

Stay tuned for more on our progress to answer that call.