The master accounting lens grinders helping us see the future of food - Blog by Mathew Parr

In the summer of 1608 a Dutch-German spectacle maker named Hans Lippershey put the finishing touches to his new invention "for seeing things far away as if they were nearby": the telescope. A master lens grinder by trade, Lippershey and his colleagues had improved the lives of millions and, through extending the working life of aging but experienced craftsmen now able to see in focus again, added a few percentage points to Dutch GDP. It was his telescope however in the hands of the Italian scientist Galileo that would revolutionise the way we thought and the way we saw ourselves, our fragile earth, and our place in the cosmos.


Our ability to put things in focus from different perspectives has immense implications for the way we think, plan and make choices. Prior to the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, our hunter gather ancestors discounted the future because they had great difficulty preserving food and accumulating stuff. They focussed on the present and lived from hand to mouth. After the agricultural revolution and the arrival of permanent settlements this all changed. Farmers had to keep the future in sharp focus as, whilst there may have been enough food for today, they also had to provide food next year and the year after.

The agricultural revolution enabled us to feed our growing settled population, but it also led to still poorly understood and managed consequences for our future on earth. Until relatively recently we have not needed to focus on the quality of our natural ecosystems, inextricably linked to our food systems, as they were plenty and very healthy. As late as AD 1400 farmers occupied only 2% of the earth's surface and had little impact on our forests, wetlands and oceans.

Our globalised industrial economies and what is called (rather confusingly as it involved further industrialisation of production) the ‘green revolution’ have changed that. Today's crop and livestock farming produce a whopping 5 to 6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year, about a sixth of global emissions, and use 70% of the water resources we extract from the earth. Since 1980, 80% of new agricultural lands have replaced tropical forests, and food production accounts for 70% of the total biodiversity loss to date. These impacts and dependencies on nature are currently not accounted for in our thinking, planning and choices whilst having significant effects on our current and future welfare. In economics they are called externalities - a cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.

Bringing the consequences of this modern eco-agri-food system into focus is in the words of Alexander Mueller, the head of UNEP's TEEB for Agriculture and Food study, ‘the highest policy priority on today’s global political agenda’. TEEB stands for ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ and is arguably the most important movement of our day: to end the invisibility of nature in economics and decision making. Think how we reward conversion of forests into cash crops whilst ignoring their value in regulating our climate and storing biodiversity. Think how we drain wetlands for urban development whilst ignoring their value in controlling floods and improving water quality.

Alexander and his TEEB AgFood study team are bringing the hidden, ie. those not accounted for, costs and benefits of our current food systems into focus. The teams locked themselves into a meeting room in Brussels the past week to look at some of the initial results of this ‘extended’ cost benefit analysis, and further develop a more fit-for purpose agricultural ‘accounting valuation framework’. Alexander's team are demonstrating that “the [current] economic environment in which farmers operate is distorted by significant externalities, both positive and negative, and a lack of awareness of dependency on natural capital, by providing a comprehensive economic evaluation of the 'eco-agri-food' systems complex.” One very illustrative example is that of pollinators. In 2008 scientists estimated worldwide economic value of pollination services provided by insect pollinators, mainly bees, was €153 billion in 2005, representing 9.5% of the total value of world agricultural food production. We don't get a €153 billion bill from the pollinators and we rarely account for these benefits when designing or managing our farms.

Starting with a series of sector-specific, geographically widespread ‘feeder studies', the TEEB AgFood team are assessing the hidden ecological and social costs and benefits of major agricultural commodities - rice, livestock, palm oil, inland fisheries, maize, and agroforestry. The results from these studies will be published in an Interim Report in December at the Global Landscapes Forum. Preliminary results from the livestock study are pretty staggering. They show that the unaccounted for natural capital cost of beef production worldwide stand at around US$1.5 trillion, those for dairy milk production at US$ 0.5 trillion, and those for poultry meat production at US$ 0.3 trillion. Global beef production externalises 9 times more costs on our ecosystems per kilo of protein than poultry production ($249/kg protein vs $28/kg protein). These are costs associated with conversion of valuable ecosystems, emissions of GHGs and other pollutants. Costs that are often geographically or temporally far away. Costs we certainly don't pay for when we eat a burger, drink a glass of milk or have a chicken korma.

In 2016, the team will go on to produce a Scientific and Economic Foundations Report, grinding and polishing further this eco-agri-food accounting lens enabling us to see the connections between business, agriculture, food, biodiversity and ecosystems from a new perspective. A Policies Report will then present a range of viable production systems that recognise ecosystem values, as well as policy recommendations adjusted for multiple socioeconomic contexts. Finally, a Synthesis Report will summarise the key findings and recommendations in 2017.

Just like Lippershey's optical lenses, this eco-ag-food accounting lens will change the way we think about food production, organise food production, and cost and price food. Lets not let short-sighted policy perspectives continue to distort our thinking, planning and choices. Let's use this new lens, 'see things far away as if they were nearby', and put our food systems and the essential values that nature provides in focus.

Mathew Parr is Senior Advisor in Natural Capital at IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands.

Mathew Parr
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