Smarter metrics will help fix our food system

Smarter metrics will help fix our food system WORLD VIEW A personal take on events 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. oday’s food systems are broken. Our diets are the leading cause peas and wheat. These benefits included two ‘provisioning’ ecosystem of disease. Some 800 million people worldwide still suffer from services (food and raw materials) and nine ‘regulating and support- Thunger, while more than 2 billion are overweight or obese. As ing’ services, such as pollination, biological pest control and nutrient much as 57% of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from food- cycling. Organic farming practices such as composting and maintain- related activities, which include everything from clearing land for ing vegetation cover lead to higher biomass and diversity, below and agriculture, to growing, gathering, processing and packaging, to above ground. Conventional agriculture suppresses these and dimin- transporting farm goods and disposing of waste. ishes soil health, farm biodiversity, water quality and air quality. The I never fail to be astonished at the inadequacy of the metrics we use study found that the total economic value of ecosystem services from to evaluate these systems. The most common yardstick is ‘productivity organic fields ranged from US$1,610 to US$19,420 per hectare per per hectare’. This measure of the yield or value of a particular crop year; that from conventional fields ranged from $1,270 to $14,570 relative to the area of the land on which it was grown is too narrow. per hectare per year. We need alternatives that account for the interacting complex of agri- This analysis only partially employed the TEEBAgrifood framework cultural lands, pastures, inland fisheries, natural ecosystems, labour, because it covered only production. To investigate other trade-offs infrastructure, technology, policies, markets and impacts, researchers should also compare and traditions that are involved in growing, food affordability and the impacts of nutrition, processing, distributing and consuming food. human health and social equity between the two ONLY IF WE We’ve seen benefits from broader metrics agricultural systems. elsewhere. Health experts know to look beyond A second example concerns pesticide policies. DIAGNOSE calorie counts to understand nutrition. Policy- In the late 1980s, Thailand began encouraging makers are less willing to accept gross domestic the use of pesticides to increase agricultural OUR FOOD SYSTEM product as a proxy for national well-being and yields. In 2010, productivity gains started to fall are turning to expanded measures of progress. and policymakers became increasingly aware of HONESTLY, And some private-sector leaders are looking pesticides’ harmful effects on the environment CAN WE beyond financial profit and loss, and assessing and health. Researchers examined the effects the impacts of their business on natural, human of increasing taxes to make pesticides more and social capital. HEAL IT. expensive, and of encouraging farmers to At last, after 4 years of work involving more adopt non-chemical forms of pest management than 150 people, including myself, there is a (S. Praneetvatakul et al. Environ. Sci. Policy 27, framework and methodologies for more-comprehensive food metrics. 103–113; 2013). They considered the costs of enforcing food-safety The effort has culminated in a report released this week by the United standards. They also examined the risks of exposure to chemical Nations Environment Programme called ‘The Economics of Eco- agents. These risks were higher for farm workers than for consumers, systems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’ (TEEBAgriFood). so the researchers argued for an increased environmental tax. This, It demonstrates how to capture the complex reality of food systems combined with support to encourage a switch to new farming through a wide-angle lens. If this work helps to divert even a fraction practices, would deliver the greatest benefits most effectively, the of brain power and political will from maximizing yields to maximiz- researchers argued. Standard productivity measures could not have ing broader benefits, it will make for healthier people, communities helped to assess such nuanced effects. and ecosystems. We need many more studies to show how considering broad TEEBAgriFood sets out an evaluation approach that accounts for impacts leads to conclusions that differ from those based simply on the impacts of the food system on livelihoods, equity, food security, market prices of output. Several pilots are planned or under way, and health, greenhouse-gas emissions, water quality and biodiversity. This I encourage more researchers to test the evaluation tool in studies of approach can reveal effects that are invisible using assessments that farming, food products and policy scenarios, as well as in dietary com- consider only the production and marketing segments of food-value parisons. If we can keep the pressure of evidence strong for just five chains. The insights gained can support better decision-making for years, I expect to start to see large changes in how agricultural, health policymakers, farmers, agribusinesses and civil society. and environmental ministries across the world set policies, incentives, For instance, one study based in New Zealand (H. S. Sandhu et al. subsidies and taxes. Ecol. Econ. 64, 835–848; 2008) used a broader framework to compare Only if we diagnose our food system honestly, can we heal it. ■ conventional and organic agriculture, and found that important, non-marketed, ecosystem services have much higher value in the Pavan Sukhdev is founder and chief executive of GIST Advisory, organic sector. Researchers considered the benefits provided by a sustainability consultancy based in Mumbai, India. 15 conventional and 14 organic fields used for crops such as carrots, e-mail: pavan@gistadvisory.com 7 J U N E 2018 | V O L 558 | N A T U R E | 7 © 201 8 Mac m ill an Publi shers Li m it ed, part of Spri nger Nat ur e. A ll ri ghts r eser ved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Nature Springer Journals

Smarter metrics will help fix our food system

Nature , Volume 558 (7708) – Jun 5, 2018
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Publisher
Nature Publishing Group UK
Copyright
Copyright © 2018 by Nature
Subject
Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, multidisciplinary; Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, multidisciplinary; Science, multidisciplinary
ISSN
0028-0836
eISSN
1476-4687
D.O.I.
10.1038/d41586-018-05328-1
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Abstract

WORLD VIEW A personal take on events 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. oday’s food systems are broken. Our diets are the leading cause peas and wheat. These benefits included two ‘provisioning’ ecosystem of disease. Some 800 million people worldwide still suffer from services (food and raw materials) and nine ‘regulating and support- Thunger, while more than 2 billion are overweight or obese. As ing’ services, such as pollination, biological pest control and nutrient much as 57% of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from food- cycling. Organic farming practices such as composting and maintain- related activities, which include everything from clearing land for ing vegetation cover lead to higher biomass and diversity, below and agriculture, to growing, gathering, processing and packaging, to above ground. Conventional agriculture suppresses these and dimin- transporting farm goods and disposing of waste. ishes soil health, farm biodiversity, water quality and air quality. The I never fail to be astonished at the inadequacy of the metrics we use study found that the total economic value of ecosystem services from to evaluate these systems. The most common yardstick is ‘productivity organic fields ranged from US$1,610 to US$19,420 per hectare per per hectare’. This measure of the yield or value of a particular crop year; that from conventional fields ranged from $1,270 to $14,570 relative to the area of the land on which it was grown is too narrow. per hectare per year. We need alternatives that account for the interacting complex of agri- This analysis only partially employed the TEEBAgrifood framework cultural lands, pastures, inland fisheries, natural ecosystems, labour, because it covered only production. To investigate other trade-offs infrastructure, technology, policies, markets and impacts, researchers should also compare and traditions that are involved in growing, food affordability and the impacts of nutrition, processing, distributing and consuming food. human health and social equity between the two ONLY IF WE We’ve seen benefits from broader metrics agricultural systems. elsewhere. Health experts know to look beyond A second example concerns pesticide policies. DIAGNOSE calorie counts to understand nutrition. Policy- In the late 1980s, Thailand began encouraging makers are less willing to accept gross domestic the use of pesticides to increase agricultural OUR FOOD SYSTEM product as a proxy for national well-being and yields. In 2010, productivity gains started to fall are turning to expanded measures of progress. and policymakers became increasingly aware of HONESTLY, And some private-sector leaders are looking pesticides’ harmful effects on the environment CAN WE beyond financial profit and loss, and assessing and health. Researchers examined the effects the impacts of their business on natural, human of increasing taxes to make pesticides more and social capital. HEAL IT. expensive, and of encouraging farmers to At last, after 4 years of work involving more adopt non-chemical forms of pest management than 150 people, including myself, there is a (S. Praneetvatakul et al. Environ. Sci. Policy 27, framework and methodologies for more-comprehensive food metrics. 103–113; 2013). They considered the costs of enforcing food-safety The effort has culminated in a report released this week by the United standards. They also examined the risks of exposure to chemical Nations Environment Programme called ‘The Economics of Eco- agents. These risks were higher for farm workers than for consumers, systems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’ (TEEBAgriFood). so the researchers argued for an increased environmental tax. This, It demonstrates how to capture the complex reality of food systems combined with support to encourage a switch to new farming through a wide-angle lens. If this work helps to divert even a fraction practices, would deliver the greatest benefits most effectively, the of brain power and political will from maximizing yields to maximiz- researchers argued. Standard productivity measures could not have ing broader benefits, it will make for healthier people, communities helped to assess such nuanced effects. and ecosystems. We need many more studies to show how considering broad TEEBAgriFood sets out an evaluation approach that accounts for impacts leads to conclusions that differ from those based simply on the impacts of the food system on livelihoods, equity, food security, market prices of output. Several pilots are planned or under way, and health, greenhouse-gas emissions, water quality and biodiversity. This I encourage more researchers to test the evaluation tool in studies of approach can reveal effects that are invisible using assessments that farming, food products and policy scenarios, as well as in dietary com- consider only the production and marketing segments of food-value parisons. If we can keep the pressure of evidence strong for just five chains. The insights gained can support better decision-making for years, I expect to start to see large changes in how agricultural, health policymakers, farmers, agribusinesses and civil society. and environmental ministries across the world set policies, incentives, For instance, one study based in New Zealand (H. S. Sandhu et al. subsidies and taxes. Ecol. Econ. 64, 835–848; 2008) used a broader framework to compare Only if we diagnose our food system honestly, can we heal it. ■ conventional and organic agriculture, and found that important, non-marketed, ecosystem services have much higher value in the Pavan Sukhdev is founder and chief executive of GIST Advisory, organic sector. Researchers considered the benefits provided by a sustainability consultancy based in Mumbai, India. 15 conventional and 14 organic fields used for crops such as carrots, e-mail: pavan@gistadvisory.com 7 J U N E 2018 | V O L 558 | N A T U R E | 7 © 201 8 Mac m ill an Publi shers Li m it ed, part of Spri nger Nat ur e. A ll ri ghts r eser ved.

Journal

NatureSpringer Journals

Published: Jun 5, 2018

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