CIFOR/Nkumi Mtimgwa
15 Oct 2020 Story Nature Action

The true costs of food systems and why they matter

CIFOR/Nkumi Mtimgwa

World Food Day, which falls on 16 October, is an opportunity to reassess how humanity produces, distributes and consumes food. Are we doing those things in a sustainable way that benefits farmers, the environment and society at large? What is the impact of food systems on nature? Are we properly valuing biodiversity in agricultural areas?

We put some of those questions to Salman Hussain. He is the coordinator of a six-year-old initiative from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Agriculture and Food. Its goal is to help countries understand the true cost of their food systems.

UNEP: We hear a lot about the need to do agriculture differently. Why is this?

Salman Hussain: Agriculture brings myriad positive and negative externalities, that is, costs or benefits that are externalized to third parties. Examples of negative externalities include the pollution of water bodies from nitrate leaching and human health impacts, such as pesticide poisoning. On the other hand, positive externalities from farming, such as community cohesion and the maintenance of livelihoods for smallholder farmers, are often undervalued. Some of these benefits simply do not get included in economic decision making. We need to account for positive and negative externalities otherwise we are not paying the true cost for our food.

UNEP: What does TEEB do?

SH: UNEP hosts TEEB, a global initiative focused on making nature’s values visible. TEEB for Agriculture and Food (also known as TEEBAgriFood) was launched in 2014 to make the dependencies and impacts that the agri-food value chain has on nature visible to decision makers. Our mission is to examine the true costs of agriculture.

Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt 

UNEP: Are you involved in any country-based initiatives?

SH: Yes. We have an International Climate Initiative-funded project in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Thailand. The aim of the project is to catalyse policy reforms that integrate the often economically invisible values of biodiversity and ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes.

Another European Union-funded project focuses on Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Thailand. It is seeking to make nature's values for food and farming visible and promote a sustainable food system that safeguards biodiversity and ecosystem services.

UNEP: How has TEEB helped move the needle on sustainable agriculture recently?

SH: An example is Indonesia, where the interim TEEBAgriFood report contributed to the inclusion – for the first time – of agroforestry in the [country’s] five-year development plan. What the Ministry of Planning found useful is that we made the economic case for agroforestry. We are now looking to build upon this inclusion in the development plan by working with stakeholders to develop viable scenarios for cacao agroforestry that support livelihoods as well as contribute to conservation outcomes.

The TEEBAgriFood Framework we applied in Indonesia, which we are applying in all our country applications, won the World Future Council Vision Award in 2018.

UNEP: Who else are you partnering with?

SH: Recently TEEB has worked with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and the Institute for the Development of Environmental-Economic Accounting to produce The TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework: Overarching Implementation Guidance. Launched on 29 September, it’s a step-by-step guide to assess how food systems impact people, society, the environment and natural resources. Supported by case studies, the guidance enables users to identify a range of actions that can transform how food systems operate and, simultaneously, helps to create a practical roadmap for action on biodiversity loss.


For more information, please contact Salman Hussain: