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To fix the planet’s broken food systems, we must count their hidden costs

October 22, 2021, 5:30 PM UTC
A food bank in Melbourne on Aug. 13, 2021. “The pandemic has revealed how unfit the global food system is for the 21st century—and how unprepared it is for crises,” writes Rajiv J. Shah.
WILLIAM WEST—AFP/Getty Images

Of all the heartbreaking scenes the world has witnessed over the course of the pandemic, there are a few that will be remembered long after the last COVID-19 case. People waiting outside food banks, whether in packed parking lots in Texas or in long lines on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Masked workers showing up for their shifts at meat processing plants across the United States, despite alarming outbreaks. In two years and just a few images, the pandemic has revealed how unfit the global food system is for the 21st century—and how unprepared it is for crises.  

Reforming that system requires understanding how expensive food really is. The global food system is full of hidden costs—to people’s health, to the climate, and to workers. Only by understanding what our food actually costs us can we understand—and have the incentive to— change the system in ways that avoid breakdowns like those from the pandemic. Such knowledge also offers the world an opportunity to achieve transformative change: by revealing where to make investments that can have outsize benefits. 

Consider the United States as an example. In 2019, American consumers spent an estimated $1.1 trillion on food. Yet when you take into account hidden costs to the planet and its people, that number is far higher: $3.2 trillion per year, according to a report we at the Rockefeller Foundation recently released. Understanding this number—and, in some cases, breaking it into its component parts—can not only help stakeholders address the overall costs of the food system, but help them design a more equitable, healthy, and resilient one.  

That starts by accounting for diet-related health care issues, which add up to over $1 trillion a year, while costing hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives. The single biggest hidden cost of the food system is the health care required to address conditions from hypertension to cancer and diabetes—all linked to the low-quality, highly processed food the system produces. These conditions lead to nearly 700,000 deaths a year in the United States, and contributed to higher death rates from COVID-19.  

Additionally, a vast number of food sector jobs come with low wages, poor working conditions, and few benefits for the farmers, fishers, ranchers, and food workers who produce and deliver food. As the pandemic has made explicit, these workers—many of them workers of color—bear the brunt of an unequal, unsustainable food system. That cost must be considered. 

Finally, stakeholders must account for the present and future costs of environmental impact. What we eat—and how we grow and distribute it—contributes to water and air pollution, reduces biodiversity, and produces greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In all, the environmental toll is $900 billion each year.   

Even if Americans don’t grasp the full costs of the food system, they are certainly paying the price: in the impacts of issues like chronic disease, worker injustice, and climate change, and in the form of massive federal subsidies going to industrial agriculture and the other corporate interests that influence the food system.  

These are just the costs of food in the United States. Last month, leaders and advocates gathered at the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit to chart a course for transforming how food is produced around the world—which will require true-cost accounting. A draft paper commissioned by the UN Summit’s Scientific Group estimated that the hidden costs of the global food system are almost double the costs of global food consumption. It also highlighted how China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, and several other nations have begun to adopt this model.  

True-cost accounting does not just highlight problems, it reveals a pathway to solutions. By accounting for true cost, as a new report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food makes clear, producers can find sustainable approaches that save money, improve nutrition, and boost profits. It can also help countries unlock progress on many of humanity’s challenges: In addition to building more nutritious, more equitable food systems, these investments also offer cost-effective ways to counter chronic disease, racial and other inequities, and the climate crisis. 

Systems-level changes require that stakeholders come together to work toward a common goal. It’s not always easy, but the past year is proof that it’s possible. Because for every heartbreaking image we’ve seen over the course of COVID-19, we’ve also seen an inspiring one. New York City schools providing free meals to kids and adults alike during, and even after, classrooms went remote. People donating meals to health care workers and setting up emergency funds for food service workers.   

Together, we have the opportunity to transform our global food system—and, with true-cost accounting, we have the tools to make that transformation possible. 

Rajiv J. Shah is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.  

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