It is a time of year when many of us are thinking about food and its role in our lives. The food on our plates doesn’t just nourish us – it connects communities and underpins economies. What we eat and produce also has huge impacts on the world around us — hidden costs and benefits that, while excluded from traditional economic and policy analyses, deeply affect our ability to address climate change and other global challenges.
From the meeting rooms of government leaders to fields and pastures around the world, a new approach to fully understand the complexity and potential food systems is starting to change this.
And it comes just in time.
Debate might continue about the wider success or failure of COP28 negotiations in Dubai this month, but this meeting marked truly historic recognition of the role of our food systems, and the need for action. In particular, 160 countries signed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, affirming that the Paris Agreement can only be met by considering the impact of global food systems. Signatories pledged to integrate food and agriculture into their national climate plans within two years.
This commitment comes on the heels of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) annual State of Food and Agriculture report which revealed the stark, unaffordable reality: our current global food system is responsible for at least $10 trillion in hidden costs each year, damaging our health, society and environment – an equivalent cost of 10% of global gross domestic product.
Whether through producing one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, directly driving climate change, or disease and undernourishment from unhealthy diets, food systems have a unique relationship with numerous global crises. Like other sectors, global food systems are significant contributors to our most urgent problems. Unlike other sectors, they also hold untapped potential to solve them.
FAO’s report and its estimates were based on true cost accounting, a powerful and internationally-tested tool to support better decision-making. It’s an approach that uncovers the positive and negative impacts of food systems on our economy, environment and society. In 2024, FAO will issue a second report demonstrating how governments and other decision-makers can use true cost accounting to understand not just the costs of our food systems – but also to shape and develop solutions to realize their significant potential benefits.
With so much at stake for this and future generations, none of us can afford false starts or wrong turns. Too often decisionmakers back approaches which not only fail to address interlinked global crises, but come laden with hidden environmental and social costs. True cost accounting already has an international track record of supporting governments to invest in effective and transformative solutions.
In India, for example, policymakers supported over half a million farmers in a shift to agro-ecological methods. True cost accounting analysis comparing this farming system to others in the region showed an increase in crop yields as well as better health outcomes, challenging a prevailing view that chemically-intensive farming is necessary to meet the needs of a growing population.
Following COP28, the importance of food systems in tackling our shared challenges is no longer a matter of debate. Commitments made by leaders and decision makers signaled historic worldwide recognition of the critical role of food systems in solving climate change and other global challenges. As 2024 approaches, it’s time for the next step.
The Non-State Actors Call to Action set out a roadmap for action, allowing “food systems [to] deliver significant, measurable progress for people, nature and climate” by 2030. This Call to Action urges countries to set targets for food system transformation – whether that’s in their plans to improve biodiversity, or their national dietary guidelines.
In living up to their COP28 promises, governments should follow the recommendation of FAO and use true cost accounting to ensure progress towards their food and agriculture targets. Parties to international agreements, including the Paris Agreement and the Global Biodiversity Framework, should evaluate future commitments using true cost accounting to ensure they are meaningful, and will deliver meaningful progress – for this and future generations.
COP28 was a promising first step towards maximizing the benefits of our food for people and planet. True cost accounting can ensure we turn this promise into the reality of a healthy, resilient food system for all.