What goes into the price of our food? Multiple elements make up the number we see on our grocery store receipt—such as the price of farm inputs, the materials used for packaging, and transportation to grocery shelves. But the price tag doesn’t include the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases, nor the food system’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These are just a few of the hidden costs of our food, and though it doesn’t show up on the till, we’re all paying for them.
In the United States, that true cost of food is triple what consumers currently spend. The U.S. as a country spends US$1.1 trillion a year on food. However, according to The Rockefeller Foundation’s recent report, which uses the True Cost Accounting (TCA) framework to quantify the food system’s external costs on human and environmental health, the true cost of food in the U.S. is US$3.2 trillion.
As The Rockefeller Foundation President, Raj Shah recently laid out to Fortune, “Only by understanding what our food actually costs us can we understand—and have the incentive to—change the system in ways that avoid breakdowns like those from the pandemic.” Tackling the hidden costs of food systems around the world is a cross-cutting solution that would improve global nutrition, save billions in healthcare expenses, and help tackle the climate emergency.
Cultivating a better food system first requires facing hard facts. If left unaddressed, the true cost of food will continue to rise, with a large part of the growing bill accounted for in the part the food system plays in fueling the climate emergency. To prevent catastrophe for future generations, we need to transform how we produce food and fundamentally change how capital flows throughout the system. For example, by applying true cost to public programs like school meals, we could discern the value of serving more nutritious and sustainably produced products and compare that to the costs of less healthy and sustainable current alternatives. This type of analysis makes a powerful policy argument to reveal the actual cost savings of some programs.
The time is ripe and urgent for change. Policymakers from across the world are currently meeting in Glasgow to discuss steps forward in climate action at COP26. Leading up to the event, IPES-Food, Nourish Scotland, and partners launched the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, a commitment by cities, regions, and governments to tackle the climate emergency through integrated food policies. Arguing that a 1.5 degrees Celsius world could be attained if food systems changes are prioritized, WWF issued a Manifesto that spells out the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of actions like dietary changes, reductions in food loss and waste, and shifts to nature-positive farming, each of which can be costed using TCA.
Many governments are already starting to consider and address the external costs imposed by today’s food systems. In Denmark, they have instituted a pesticide tax aimed at reducing negative health and environmental effects. Others are accelerating the development of new tools to reduce GHGs, such as China launching the world’s largest carbon market this year.
These approaches to cover the true cost of food need to keep equity at the center, as communities that are marginalized, particularly Black and Indigenous communities of color, often bear a disproportionate burden of these true costs. Governments must take steps and implement solutions that better support marginalized communities, especially Black and Indigenous people of color and small producers, through local purchasing incentives, producer debt relief, increased worker wages, and expanded health benefits.
But policy is just one avenue necessary for change. Transforming the food system requires enabling producers themselves to access and afford more nourishing and sustainably produced food. Corporations are now recognizing that encouraging regenerative practices can benefit both farmers and their bottom line. Businesses can look to Annie’s Homegrown investing in regenerative agriculture practices, General Mills working with farmers to grow diverse crops that can also be cash crops, and Dr. Bronner’s encouraging farmers all over the globe to grow organic ingredients.
Meanwhile, new technologies and innovations are embracing this system-based approach to food. Do Good Foods’ closed-loop system takes 160 tons of grocery surplus each day, transforms that food into animal feed, and then sells carbon-reduced proteins to U.S. consumers. And Treasure8 is taking large waste streams and upcycling them into safe, tasty, healthy products at large-scale distribution.
Philanthropic organizations spend billions on issue areas that are implicitly connected to food systems, yet food has seldom been explicitly addressed in funding strategies. Now philanthropy, too, is rethinking its evolving role in the climate emergency. Just launched at COP 26, the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) between The Rockefeller Foundation, IKEA Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund, and other partners will invest US$10 billion of committed capital to accelerate investment in green energy transitions and renewable energy solutions in developing and emerging economies. This will include a focus on the agriculture-energy nexus and create, enable, or support more than 150 million jobs and drive economic growth over the next decade.
These are the success stories we need to encourage greater commitment from and more unconventional collaborations between government, businesses, academia, NGOs, farmers, and consumers for a better food future. With a systems-based approach to food, solutions can drive positive change across and within multiple sectors—from lowering healthcare costs and GHG emissions to stimulating local economics.
The climate emergency impacts all eaters in all corners of the globe, and no one person or organization alone can fix our broken systems. But there is hope. Pioneers are proving we can address the true costs of the food system while increasing benefits across producers, businesses, and consumers.
To truly solve the climate emergency and make progress towards a more nourishing, equitable, and regenerative food system—one that is less costly and less risky—we must continue to break down more silos at the national level. It is our collective responsibility, and both the planet and future generations depend upon it.
Author Credit: Danielle Nierenberg and Roy Steiner