Everybody talks about a “global food system,” but one of the biggest problems with that system is that it has never been managed as a system. We measure the success of a crop based on production per acre and we measure the cost of a tomato based on the price we pay at the grocery store. But what about all the other costs wrapped up in agriculture: the impact on biodiversity, the negative results of pesticide use, the treatment of workers, the impact of food waste.
A major new study released in June, authored by 150 experts from 33 countries, creates a first of its kind system-wide framework for calculating the true cost of agriculture.
The TEEB for Agriculture & Food (TEEBAgriFood) Scientific and Economic Foundations report, a United Nations Environment Program project, looks at all the impacts of the food system, from farm to plate to waste, including effects on workers, the environment, and human health.
The picture TEEB paints is not a pretty one: we have a food system that isn’t adequate to feed the world’s growing population, that is bending under the pressure of climate change and water scarcity, and that can’t be fixed without understanding its full impact.
“We must link the health of people with the health of the planet, and we can only ensure long-term food security if our food systems don’t destroy the basis of food production,” said TEEB study leader Alexander Muller. “Ecosystems are the basis for food production. Therefore, to achieve the 2030 agenda and to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need tools that allow us to make an assessment of the sustainability of food systems.”
The report outlines agriculture’s externalities, the hidden costs. FoodTank outlines a few of them:
- Agricultural production contributes over one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions.
- When considering land-use change and deforestation as well as processing, packaging, transport, sale, and the waste of agricultural products, 43 to 57 percent of GHG emissions are from food production.
- 70 to 90 percent of global deforestation is from agricultural expansion.
- An estimated 80 percent of food consumed in food-insecure regions is grown there, mainly by women, while agri-business is a marginal player in food security.
- According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to resources (land, credits, education, etc.) as male farmers, they could raise yields by 20 to 30 percent and lift as many as 150 million people out of hunger.
- Approximately one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted, enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over.
- Around 40 percent of available land is used for growing food, a figure that would need to rise to an improbable 70 percent by 2050 under a “business-as-usual” scenario.
- 33 percent of the Earth’s land surface is moderately to highly affected by some type of soil degradation mainly due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, or chemical pollution of soils.
- Six of the top eleven risk factors driving the global burden of disease are diet-related.
- The World Health Organization estimates the direct costs of diabetes at more than US$827 billion per year, globally.
- Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases, and an estimated 600 million people—almost 1 in 10 people in the world—fall ill after eating contaminated food, while 420,000 die every year.
- 61 percent of commercial fish populations are fully fished and 29 percent are overfished.
- In a “business-as-usual” scenario, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish (by weight) by 2050.
The framework for calculating these costs is too complex to outline here. The upshot of the 225 page report (which, yes, we read so you don’t have to) is that we need to understand the full cost of global agriculture and that cost needs to be truly reflected in pricing, so negative impacts can be addressed.