Food System Change: Time For TEEB

TEEB2 picEarlier this month, TEEB released a lengthy report devoted to Agriculture and Food (TEEB for Agriculture and Food: Scientific and Economic Foundations Report) that has garnered a fair amount of attention among global food system leaders.

First, what is TEEB?  TEEB is the acronym for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.  It is a global initiative with links to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) which at its core seeks to “make Nature’s value visible” to food system stakeholders.  The TEEB initiative was inspired by the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006), and in comparable fashion seeks to make the economic case for preserving Nature.  TEEB Project Leader Pavan Sukhdev stresses that a healthy global economy (and humanity in general) needs Nature to thrive, while also citing the challenge of its invisibility – noting that “we use Nature because she’s valuable; we lose Nature because she’s free.”  In other words, we’d better start working to preserve her.

TEEB exists to measure the significant externalities of business (Sukhdev estimates that the top 3,000 businesses have annual economic externalities of nearly $2.1 trillion – or 3.5% of global GDP) and to guide government, business, and policy leaders in reducing them.

The AgriFood report reflects that purpose.  Fair warning – the report is lengthy, and It’s important to note that it very much remains a work in process.  Several of the chapters in the initial release (137 pages) weren’t complete (listing summaries only).  Since then, two more chapters have been added, bringing the report to 225 pages, with four more chapters still to be added.  So when ultimately complete, it will be a very extensive piece.

So what do food system leaders need to know?

In short, the report cites the very substantial impact of global agriculture on the environment and natural resources, and notes that the Sustainable Development Goals “will not be achieved without a transformation of the way we are producing, processing, distributing, and consuming food.”  The authors cite the need for a systems approach to understanding “eco-agri-food systems,” noting that the path to sustainable food systems must consider “dependencies and interactions within the entire food chain and at multiple scales” (including health/nutrition and social equity/justice) – from the farm all the way to regional food systems.

The core of the report is chapter six – which presents the TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework, along with guidance on how to apply the Framework as well as a seven-step evaluation process.  The Framework involves four elements – stocks (natural capital, produced capital, human capital, and social capital), flows of the elements (through the value chain in production and consumption activity), outcomes (changes in the stocks of capitals), and impacts (on human well-being).  Food system leaders should spend some time thinking through the dimensions and linkages on Figure 6.3.  Last, spend some time with chapter nine (which delves into change theory to enable moving from information to action) and chapter ten (which links TEEBAgriFood to the Sustainable Development Goals and other engagement strategies.

In sum, the TEEB team seeks to preserve Nature by recognizing and measuring the impact of business behavior on biodiversity and ecosystems so that it can be managed to minimize negative externalities – and thus facilitate the global goal of sustainably feeding 10 billion global citizens by 2050.

As Ruth Richardson (Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food) notes, the ultimate goal of TEEBAgriFood is action – steps to transform food systems toward “sustainable agri-food systems that nourish, provide energy, damage neither health nor environment, and support equitable access to resources.”

I couldn’t agree more on the need for action with a systems focus.  I am excited to see intensive efforts like that of the TEEB AgriFood report to raise awareness of the need for transformative change in the food system through systems thinking, collaboration, and a new evaluation framework for eco-agri-food systems.  Such work is a positive step in the path to achieving the SDGs, and will naturally include a focus on the imperative of substantial reduction in the current level of global food waste in accordance with Target 12.3.  And that’s all good.

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