ONLY IF WE
OUR FOOD SYSTEM
oday’s food systems are broken. Our diets are the leading cause
of disease. Some 800 million people worldwide still suffer from
hunger, while more than 2 billion are overweight or obese. As
much as 57% of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from food-
related activities, which include everything from clearing land for
agriculture, to growing, gathering, processing and packaging, to
transporting farm goods and disposing of waste.
I never fail to be astonished at the inadequacy of the metrics we use
to evaluate these systems. The most common yardstick is ‘productivity
per hectare’. This measure of the yield or value of a particular crop
relative to the area of the land on which it was grown is too narrow.
We need alternatives that account for the interacting complex of agri-
cultural lands, pastures, inland fisheries, natural ecosystems, labour,
infrastructure, technology, policies, markets
and traditions that are involved in growing,
processing, distributing and consuming food.
We’ve seen benefits from broader metrics
elsewhere. Health experts know to look beyond
calorie counts to understand nutrition. Policy-
makers are less willing to accept gross domestic
product as a proxy for national well-being and
are turning to expanded measures of progress.
And some private-sector leaders are looking
beyond financial profit and loss, and assessing
the impacts of their business on natural, human
and social capital.
At last, after 4 years of work involving more
than 150 people, including myself, there is a
framework and methodologies for more-comprehensive food metrics.
The effort has culminated in a report released this week by the United
Nations Environment Programme called ‘The Economics of Eco-
systems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’ (TEEBAgriFood).
It demonstrates how to capture the complex reality of food systems
through a wide-angle lens. If this work helps to divert even a fraction
of brain power and political will from maximizing yields to maximiz
ing broader benefits, it will make for healthier people, communities
TEEBAgriFood sets out an evaluation approach that accounts for
the impacts of the food system on livelihoods, equity, food security,
health, greenhouse-gas emissions, water quality and biodiversity. This
approach can reveal effects that are invisible using assessments that
consider only the production and marketing segments of food-value
chains. The insights gained can support better decision-making for
policymakers, farmers, agribusinesses and civil society.
For instance, one study based in New Zealand (H. S. Sandhu et al.
Ecol. Econ. 64, 835–848; 2008) used a broader framework to compare
conventional and organic agriculture, and found that important,
non-marketed, ecosystem services have much higher value in the
organic sector. Researchers considered the benefits provided by
15 conventional and 14 organic fields used for crops such as carrots,
peas and wheat. These benefits included two ‘provisioning’ ecosystem
services (food and raw materials) and nine ‘regulating and support-
ing’ services, such as pollination, biological pest control and nutrient
cycling. Organic farming practices such as composting and maintain-
ing vegetation cover lead to higher biomass and diversity, below and
above ground. Conventional agriculture suppresses these and dimin-
ishes soil health, farm biodiversity, water quality and air quality. The
study found that the total economic value of ecosystem services from
organic fields ranged from US$1,610 to US$19,420 per hectare per
year; that from conventional fields ranged from $1,270 to $14,570
per hectare per year.
This analysis only partially employed the TEEBAgrifood framework
because it covered only production. To investigate other trade-offs
and impacts, researchers should also compare
food affordability and the impacts of nutrition,
human health and social equity between the two
A second example concerns pesticide policies.
In the late 1980s, Thailand began encouraging
the use of pesticides to increase agricultural
yields. In 2010, productivity gains started to fall
and policymakers became increasingly aware of
pesticides’ harmful effects on the environment
and health. Researchers examined the effects
of increasing taxes to make pesticides more
expensive, and of encouraging farmers to
adopt non-chemical forms of pest management
(S. Praneetvatakul et al. Environ. Sci. Policy 27,
103–113; 2013). They considered the costs of enforcing food-safety
standards. They also examined the risks of exposure to chemical
agents. These risks were higher for farm workers than for consumers,
so the researchers argued for an increased environmental tax. This,
combined with support to encourage a switch to new farming
practices, would deliver the greatest benefits most effectively, the
researchers argued. Standard productivity measures could not have
helped to assess such nuanced effects.
We need many more studies to show how considering broad
impacts leads to conclusions that differ from those based simply on
market prices of output. Several pilots are planned or under way, and
I encourage more researchers to test the evaluation tool in studies of
farming, food products and policy scenarios, as well as in dietary com-
parisons. If we can keep the pressure of evidence strong for just five
years, I expect to start to see large changes in how agricultural, health
and environmental ministries across the world set policies, incentives,
subsidies and taxes.
Only if we diagnose our food system honestly, can we heal it.
Pavan Sukhdev is founder and chief executive of GIST Advisory,
a sustainability consultancy based in Mumbai, India.
Smarter metrics will help
fix our food system
Think less about bigger crop yields, and more about better lives, says
Pavan Sukhdev, as more-comprehensive evaluation techniques are unveiled.
7 JUNE 2018 | VOL 558 | NATURE | 7
A personal take on events