TEEBAgriFood, a Cure for Blindness

By Kathleen Merrigan, GW Food Institute Director

As I write, final touches are being made to the highly anticipated TEEBAgriFood report. It has been my honor and joy to serve on the Steering Committee overseeing this initiative supported by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.  Perhaps you have heard of our work? In 2015, coincident with COP21 in Paris, a few of us presented an interim report at the Global Landscape Forum where 3,000+ people gathered to think about food, agriculture and forestry. About a year later, Nature published an article about our work, Fix Food Metrics, authored by my colleagues Pavan Sukhdev, Peter May, and Alexander Muller. Given the very public nature of these two events, the fact that we have been hard at work should not be surprising. Yet I do hope the forthcoming opus surprises and delights in its attention to detail and its challenge to think about the hidden costs of our food.

From the onset, our TEEBAgriFood goals were bold and ambitious: to contribute a framework approach for understanding the externalities of food production and to incite a global network of scholars dedicated to disclosing and valuing those externalities. The perfectionist in me knows that our work surely needs fine-tuning – how could it not, given its breadth and depth – but I am satisfied that this work is ready for prime time and as written, could potentially be a game-changer. Without a doubt, the complexity is daunting as we embrace, holistically, the interconnectedness of food production issues with which we must grapple. Yet the result is worth it — full transparency of the true costs of food production, a necessary precondition to making sound policy decisions.

In our report summary, we reference the well-known proverb of the blind men who try, individually to describe an elephant; each person only able to discuss the part that they touch, such as a tusk, and thus unable to accurately describe the whole animal. Partial information leads to wrong conclusions. This proverb is relevant to TEEBAgriFood in two ways. First, we know that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require interdisciplinary teams as no one discipline can discern and analyze the entirety of the food system and make robust recommendations for improvement. For this reason, TEEBAgriFood brought together nearly 200 scholars from multiple disciplines and 33 countries to contribute to our report. Second, we know that to understand food production in its full context, we need to factor in, and cost-out, all impacts – human health, water quality, climate, biodiversity, wasted food, etc. In doing so, what are now largely invisible costs because they are not valued monetarily, become explicit and the choices we make about what, how, and where we produce food are illuminated. Our present-day blindness is cured by a transdisciplinary and holistic approach to accessing food production.

Do not misinterpret our TEEBAgriFood report as a call for more expensive food. That is certainly not the goal, nor what I advocate. The Steering Committee and our many authors are keenly aware of the struggle hundreds of millions of people globally face in accessing and affording the food they need for a healthy life. In 2016, on average, an American family spent 12.6% of their family income on food (following housing (33%) and transportation (15.8%)), one of the lowest percentage rates in the world. Yet looking at averages cloaks the dire challenges faced by poor families, some of whom pay as much as 46% of their income on food, not unlike people in less well-off economies around the world. Even in the wealthy United States, 43 million people are reliant on SNAP to subsidize the cost of food, and this is an undercount of those in need since many SNAP-eligible people have not enrolled, particularly among impoverished elderly.

So no, I do not believe our food is ‘too cheap.’ Over the decades, the United States has implemented many policies to help keep prices low for consumers, as explained in this video by my former Tufts University colleague Parke Wilde who argues that, despite arguments to the contrary, the United States does not have a cheap food policy. Looking forward, my hope is that, as a country, the United States will continue to design policies to protect the livelihoods of those who produce our food as well as to ensure that the price of food is affordable for all. That said, I could easily imagine so many new policies that would work better than current approaches, especially ones designed to account for the hidden costs – the externalities – of our food production. Take the example of wasted food – people were shocked to learn the cost of wasted food, which FAO has estimated to be $1 Trillion annually, and the result is more policy proposals to address the problem. While little reform has occurred to date, I am optimistic that the revelation of the issue through cost accounting will ultimately compel policymakers to act (e.g., recently France prohibited grocery stores from throwing away edible food). If we address wasted food successfully, there will be many benefits, including perhaps, lower prices for some food.

Our TEEBAgriFood report concludes with this statement:

“We envision and aspire towards a world where informed decision-making upholds public good and ensures suitable nutrition and good health for all humans so they can live in harmony with nature.  We believe that the true value of our food far exceeds the true cost if we make the right choices: the challenge is to have good and complete information and a transparent and fair way of evaluating that information before making those choices.”

The most immediate and intelligent choice is to embrace the TEEBAgriFood framework, roll up our sleeves, and get to work understanding the full cost of food – from seed to fork to waste. This will increase awareness of our dependency on natural, human, and social capital. From there, we can then use that knowledge to design strategies to achieve the all-important Sustainable Development Goals. As Helen Keller said, “the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”