After a number of years of pandemic-driven price spikes at the grocery store, retail meals worth inflation is slowing down. That’s excellent news for shoppers, particularly these in low-income households, who spend a proportionally larger share of their income on food.

However there’s extra to the price of meals than what we pay on the retailer. Producing, processing, transporting and advertising meals creates prices all alongside the worth chain. Many are borne by society as an entire or by communities and areas.

For instance, farm runoff is a top cause of algae blooms and dead zones in rivers, lakes and bays. And food waste takes up one-fourth of the house in U.S. landfills, the place it rots, producing methane that warms Earth’s climate.

Exploring these lesser-known prices is step one towards decreasing them. The bottom line is a technique referred to as true cost accounting, which examines the financial, environmental, social and well being impacts of meals manufacturing and consumption to supply a broader image of its prices and advantages.

Trillions of {dollars} in uncounted prices

Yearly since 1947, the United Nations Meals and Agriculture Group has launched an essential and extensively learn report referred to as The State of Food and Agriculture, recognized within the meals sector as SOFA. SOFA 2023 examines how rather more our meals prices past what shoppers pay on the grocery retailer.

Utilizing true price accounting, the report calculates that the worldwide price of the agrifood system in 2020 was as much as US$12.7 trillion greater than shoppers paid at retail. That’s equal to about 10% of world gross home product, or $5 per particular person per day worldwide.


True price accounting is designed to measure the total impacts of manufacturing, transporting and consuming meals.

In conventional economics-speak, hidden prices are known as externalities – spillover results from manufacturing which are attributable to one social gathering however paid for by one other. Some externalities are optimistic. For instance, birds, butterflies and bugs pollinate crops at no cost, and everybody who eats these crops advantages. Others, reminiscent of air pollution, are destructive. Supply vehicles emit air pollution, and everybody close by breathes dirtier air.

True price accounting seeks to make these externalities seen. To do that, students analyze information associated to environmental, well being, social and different prices and advantages, add them collectively and calculate a price ticket that represents what meals actually prices.

The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State College, which I direct, just lately performed a true cost accounting study of cow-calf operations within the Western U.S., in partnership with Colorado State College. It discovered that the local weather prices of those operations are very excessive – however that fixing for local weather change alone might threaten the livelihoods of 70,000 ranchers and the agricultural communities during which they dwell. A real price accounting method can illuminate the necessity for multidimensional options.

I examine sustainable food systems and am one in every of 150 students throughout 33 nations who labored collectively over a number of years to design and test this new methodology. Our work was led by the U.N. Atmosphere Program and partially funded by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a coalition of philanthropic foundations.

In some ways, true price accounting is a contemporary and improved version of cost-benefit analysis, a technique embedded in governmental decision-making in most superior economies around the globe. This method quantifies expected rewards and costs related to taking a specific motion after which compares them to see whether or not the motion is prone to produce a web achieve or loss for the general public.

Advocates of true price accounting assert that its more nuanced approach will tackle shortcomings in conventional cost-benefit evaluation – notably, failing to contemplate social and well being externalities in depth. The hope is that as a result of these two strategies have many similarities, it ought to be comparatively simple for governments to improve to true price accounting because it turns into extra extensively adopted.

Dozens of young pigs feed in pens inside a large modern barn.

Giant-scale livestock farms produce meals effectively at a low price, however they generate odors and big portions of animal waste that may have an effect on adjoining communities.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

True prices of meals differ throughout nations

The 2023 State of Meals and Agriculture report reveals some clear patterns. Of the $12.7 trillion in worldwide hidden prices that it tallies, 39% are generated by upper-middle-income nations and 36% by high-income nations.

For rich nations, 84% of hidden prices derive from unhealthy dietary patterns, reminiscent of consuming giant portions of crimson meat and closely processed meals, which is related to elevated risk of heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Getting sick takes individuals away from work, so these well being results additionally cut back productiveness, which impacts the economic system.

In distinction, 50% of the hidden prices of meals in low-income nations are social prices that stem from poverty and undernourishment. SOFA 2023 estimates that incomes of poor individuals who produce meals in low-income nations would wish to extend by 57% for these staff to acquire adequate income and energy for productive lives.

Meals insecurity on farms can be a problem within the U.S., the place the individuals who produce our meals sometimes go hungry themselves. The meals system’s reliance on undocumented and low-paid workers yields undernourished children who often are unable to learn.

The truth that many U.S. farmworkers lack entry to medical health insurance additionally generates prices, since hospitals treat them at public expense when these staff fall sick or are injured.

Meals manufacturing additionally has environmental prices. Nitrogen runoff, ammonia emissions, deforestation, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions mixed characterize about 20% of the worldwide hidden prices of meals manufacturing. Different environmental prices, reminiscent of these related to species loss and pesticide publicity, usually are not included within the SOFA evaluation.

Ought to meals price extra?

The primary query individuals ask me about true price accounting is whether or not utilizing it would make meals costlier. Some advocates do argue for pricing meals at a stage that internalizes its hidden prices.

For instance, a Dutch group referred to as True Price works with meals firms to assist them charge more accurate prices. The group operates a grocery store in Amsterdam that costs standard costs however gives receipts that additionally display “true” prices, reflecting the products’ hidden prices.

Shoppers are inspired to pay these larger costs. Once they do, the shop shares the proceeds with two nonprofit organizations that promote land and wildlife conservation and poverty reduction in Africa.

Moderately than elevating costs, I imagine the simplest strategy to tackle the hidden prices of meals could be to vary authorities insurance policies that present $540 billion in agricultural subsidies worldwide yearly. Of this quantity, 87% goes to help manufacturing programs that produce low-cost meals, fiber and biofuels but in addition generate social and environmental harms. Examples embody subsides that promote chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, overuse of pure sources and cultivation of emission-intensive merchandise reminiscent of rice.

U.N. businesses have urged world leaders to redirect these subsidies to cut back destructive impacts – a technique they name “a multibillion-dollar opportunity to transform food systems.” Whereas it might appear that eliminating subsidies would elevate retail costs, that’s not essentially true – particularly if they’re repurposed to help sustainable, equitable and environment friendly manufacturing.

Utilizing true price accounting as a information, policymakers might reallocate a few of these huge sums of cash towards manufacturing strategies that ship net-positive advantages, reminiscent of increasing organic agriculture, agroforestry and sustainable fisheries. In addition they might put money into coaching and supporting next-generation meals and agriculture leaders.

By creating transparency, true price accounting may also help shift cash away from dangerous meals manufacturing programs and towards options that defend sources and rural communities. Doing so might cut back the hidden prices of feeding the world.


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