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Publication | 2021

True Value: Revealing the Positive Impacts of Food Systems Transformation

Food systems are significant contributors to global crises: They are some of the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; a driver of biodiversity loss and zoonotic diseases; and negatively impact our health, diet, and well-being. These hidden costs of global food and land-use systems are estimated to add up to USD 19.8 trillion per year.

True Cost Accounting (TCA) is an innovative tool that provides a holistic understanding of the relationships between agriculture, food, the environment, and human well-being, beyond metrics like yield per hectare productivity measures or market profits. TCA takes into account the total net impact of food systems by considering all the benefits they bring to consumers, society, and the environment in addition to the negative externalities.

In this report, a TCA approach is applied to six initiatives drawn from the Global Alliance’s Beacons of Hope (BoH) initiative, which showcases the groundswell of people and organizations around the world who are addressing food systems challenges in creative and systemic ways.

The six initiatives assessed:

  • COMACO, “Community Markets for Conservation,” is a social enterprise that supports the local community in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia to adopt agroforestry, aiming to end wildlife poaching, deforestation, and food insecurity. There, the assessment showed significant impacts of COMACO’s carbon offset schemes. 

  • The Common Market, based in the Eastern United States, aggregates wholesale fruits, vegetables, animal products, and artisanal goods from small farms and then distributes them to regional vendors, mostly public and private institutions. The assessment showed multiple benefits of the organization’s work in sustainable procurement, and building regional networks that are able to quickly read and respond to local agricultural needs.

  • Community Managed Natural Farming in India is an innovative program in Andhra Pradesh to implement a method called Natural Farming, which is farming without the addition of synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. The assessment showed reductions in pollution and emissions, and better wages and earnings for farmers. 

  • MASIPAG, the “Farmer–Scientist Partnership for Development,” is a decentralized farmer-led network of 50,000 small growers in the Philippines who farm ecologically for subsistence and local market sale. There, the assessment showed how small farmer networks create resilience across culture, agriculture, ecosystems, and the economy. 

  • Lagos Food Bank Initiative is a hunger-relief organization based in Nigeria. LFBI uses a food banking system to support meaningful community nutrition while also maintaining health and sustainability through urban farming, maternal health, and improved school outcomes. Here the assessment showed the benefits of partnership with local businesses to reduce food waste and food insecurity.

  • Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) is a farmer-led non-profit based in Malawi. Weaving farmer participation and gender equity with goals of food security, child nutrition, and soil fertility, SFHC builds more equal and resilient Malawian communities. The assessment showed progress across multiple measures, from climate resilience to community health to improved gender equity. 

These TCA assessments revealed the true value of the BoH in monetary and non-monetary ways, demonstrating how sustainable food systems have positive multiplier impacts across diverse issues. Positive impacts were documented across public health, biodiversity conservation, climate change, farm workers’ rights, cultural diversity, community well-being, and gender empowerment.

Every Beacon of Hope (BoH) assessed through this study is acting to address pressing global challenges such as climate breakdown, migration, urbanization, and the need for more sustainable economies, lifestyles, and diets each and every day.

The analysis as a whole revealed a variety of impact pathways. Insights gleaned from the TCA assessments also demonstrate how established policies, regulations, and corporate models can be challenged. However, to further accelerate food systems transformation, national and global policy efforts to recognize the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies, and a healthy planet, are needed.

For policymakers, the BoH serve as inspiring evidence that food systems transformation has already begun. The centrality of food systems transformation to building resilience and sustainability across multiple systems has never been more apparent.

To further catalyze transformation across food systems, policymakers must initiate deeper TCA assessments – ensuring that both the negative and positive externalities are made visible and factored into decision-making.

For funders and researchers, there’s a clear and urgent need for finance to be redirected toward enabling holistic, transdisciplinary, and inclusive ways of understanding food systems. More must be done to build policies and processes that involve diverse voices, ensure meaningful dialogue, and promote transparency.