Giving Compass' Take:

• The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) report from the UN provides a global perspective on the food system including the impact of the system on related systems like healthcare. 

• How does this report relate food to other issue areas? How can funders expand their understanding of their issues through comprehensive reports like this one? 

• Read an interview with one of the authors of the TEEBAgriFood report.

There are many different types of agriculture and food systems, each with different contributions to global food security, impacts on the natural resource base and ways of moving food through supply chains. An improved understanding of the possible pathways towards sustainable food systems and the logic of intervention from different stakeholders around the world first requires a better understanding of this diversity.

Farming as an agricultural operation uses ecosystems (land, water, biodiversity) as substrate and crop and livestock as a factory building blocks. Any interaction of humans with the environment has consequences: farming can maintain, improve or degrade soil fertility; it can also create new biodiversity. The genetic resources for food and agriculture (GRFA) are a result of breeding efforts of generations of farmers over thousands of years – and can also destroy biodiversity, both wild biodiversity and agricultural genetic resources.

Management practices have an impact on organisms’ susceptibility to diseases, requiring increasing or decreasing quantities of chemical interventions that can pollute water and air. Conversely, a regenerative form of agriculture (e.g. agro-ecological, organic, biodynamic, integrated) can provide a unique pathway to heal nature, restore and restock soils with carbon and microbiota and create ecosystems where diversity thrives.

Significant intangibles in global food trade remain as hidden costs that are largely not known or recognized by policymakers. It is such externalities and invisibles that are a focus of true cost accounting in agriculture and food system and that can be measured as “materials embodied in trade”, “indirect flows”, “hidden flows”, “virtual flows” or “ecological rucksacks”.

Human health is directly dependent on food and nutrition security. On the one hand, food systems currently provide more food than ever before, enough to satisfy the dietary needs of a population of 7.5 billion. On the other hand, six of the top ten risk factors driving the burden of disease are diet-related. Malnutrition impacts the quality of life for billions of people; in fact, 88 percent of countries face the serious burden of two or three forms of malnutrition. Most efforts focus on direct food consumption and dietary composition, ignoring key risk factors such as environmental contamination from agriculture, food adulteration, risks to farmworker health by unsafe handling practices, or loss of nutrients resulting from the overall commodification of food. Eco-agri-food systems can either cause disease across generations (e.g. endocrine-disruptor chemicals affect people in pre-natal phases), or provide a pathway to healthy lives (e.g. food with more polyphenols that strengthen the human immune system), depending on a variety of conditions that determine what, how and how much food is produced, processed and consumed.

Quality of life, whether individual or global, requires equity in all spheres of human interactions, including across the eco-agri-food system. Certain agrifood systems secure decent livelihoods and equitably distribute benefits, while others exploit workers and deprive communities of healthy food and clean environments. In an equitable food system, all people have meaningful access to sufficient healthy and culturally appropriate food, and the benefits and burdens of the food system are equitably distributed. Creating an equitable food system requires actions ranging from improving people’s access to productive resources (e.g. land, water, credit, technology), to ensuring labour rights and gender equality. Equal opportunities generate benefits to wider communities while alienation leads only to degradation throughout the agri-food system.