Dr. Salman Hussain is an economist whose work focuses on ecosystems and the environment. He is an author of a new, ground-breaking report from the Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood). This report, launching on June 5 on World Environment Day, addresses how to evaluate our agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.
Dr. Salman Hussain earned his Ph.D. in the economics of the ‘greening’ of industry, with an emphasis on eco-innovation and eco-labeling. His research now focuses on ecosystem and environmental economics. Hussain directed the University of Edinburgh’s Master’s program in Ecological Economics and led a team focusing on marine ecosystem economics while at Scotland’s Rural College. He led the economics work of a European Commission project that combined ecosystem service valuation with the biophysical modeling of the impacts of different use and conservation policy options. Hussain was a contributing author to the TEEB reports launched in 2010 and is coordinating the quantitative assessment for TEEB.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Salman Hussain about the TEEBAgriFood report and its importance.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
Salman Hussain (SH): That the concept of looking at invisibilities and externalities really chimes with a wide selection of stakeholders. I have presented the TEEBAgriFood approach more than a dozen times and on each occasion the audience—including academics, politicians, civil society, etcetera—‘get it.’
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
SH: The loss of biodiversity arising from land use change and agricultural encroachment.
FT: Why is the TEEBAgriFood framework necessary and what is it built on?
SH: It is necessary to avoid silos and to move us from a focus just on yields per hectare. It is built on the foundations of TEEB—a focus on biodiversity and ecosystems—but coupled with the understanding that we also need to consider the impacts and dependencies of our agri-food systems on employment, health impacts, etcetera.
FT: Why is it important to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of the eco-agri-food system in addition to the economic impacts?
SH: Even the most dyed-in-the-wool neo-liberal economist will acknowledge that in some circumstances the market ‘fails’ in the sense that if we allow the market in an unfettered, unregulated way to allocate resources via the price mechanism then the market will over-supply some things and under-supply others. Negative externalities, the former, include pollution emissions. It is privately optimal to minimize the expense of controlling pollution by, say, allowing nutrient runoff, but it is not the best outcome for society. If as a producer I contribute to maintaining a gene pool by using local varieties then some time in the future society may benefit from my actions, but this provision of a positive externality is not typically recognized or valued in the market.
FT: How can TEEBAgriFood shift the debate around global issues like climate change?
SH: If we recognize that there are co-benefits to climate change mitigation, such as biodiversity conservation, then these options are more likely to be accepted. TEEBAgriFood makes these benefits visible. Equally, we can show the climate change mitigation co-benefits to pro-conservation options. Typically an option that is good for climate change mitigation is also good for conservation, although this is not always the case, for example air-freighting organic vegetables.
FT: What do you hope the TEEBAgriFood report will accomplish?
SH: A change in how we think about our food systems.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?
SH: That a lot of thought has gone into creating a comprehensive Evaluation Framework, that it is useful as a tool, and is really very different from alternatives. Many projects and initiatives talk of ‘holism’ and ‘avoiding silos’ but the Framework forces you to avoid silo thinking. You cannot, for instance, focus just on crop health—which is important of course—but also need to consider the health impacts of ‘the food plate’. The health and nutrition experts don’t readily interact with plant scientists, but they should. In order to apply the Framework, they must do so.
The goal of TEEB AgriFood is to more comprehensively determine the costs, benefits, and dependencies of agriculture and food production. What makes some produce less expensive in most supermarkets is in part the use of cheap—often subsidized—fertilizers and pesticides, but that retail price does not take into account hidden costs like environmental damage from runoff or human impacts on health and livelihood. Conversely, these prices do not recognize the positive benefits created by more sustainable forms of agriculture. To ensure the sustainability of agriculture and food systems, an important step is to account for the side effects, or externalities, through market mechanisms. TEEB AgriFood is creating a framework for looking at all the impacts of the ‘eco-agri-food’ value chain, from farm to fork to disposal, including effects on livelihoods, the environment, and health. This can help farmers, decision makers, and businesses more explicitly look at the impacts of different practices and policies.