Alexander Müller is a sociologist with a long history in local and federal environmental policy in Europe. He is currently a study leader for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food’s (TEEB AgriFood) groundbreaking report on a new framework for our food system.
Alexander Müller received a diploma in sociology at the Philipps-University in Marburg in 1985. He served as a city councillor in Marburg, a State Secretary and member of Parliament in Hessen, and a State Secretary for Germany’s Federal Government. From 2006 until June 2013, Müller served as the Assistant Director General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and was responsible for the FAO’s work on Land and Water, Climate Change, and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. He was nominated as a member of the Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) in 2009 and has served the Chair of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN). Müller is also involved in Germany’s green energy transition, known as the “Energiewende“. Since 2014 Müller has served as the study leader for TEEB AgriFood and as the Managing Director of TMG – ThinkTankforSustainability.
Food Tank had the chance to talk with Alexander about his holistic approach to the food system, the cost of cheap food, and how the TEEB AgriFood report can help sustainably manage resources.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEB AgriFood?
Alexander Müller (AM): Everyone is talking about the food system, but it is not managed like a system. Therefore, the most important thing I have learned is that we must take the systems approach seriously. We need to change our mindset because the eco-agri-food system is complex and interconnected, and we are only able to understand it if you look at all its bits and pieces. There is a big risk for not understanding, misunderstanding, or drawing the wrong conclusion if you only look at the individual parts of the eco-agri-food complex. For example, if you were to look at agriculture production and you don’t consider its use as food, fuel, or fiber, you might misunderstand the consequences. Therefore, I believe the systems approach is key.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
AM: The eco-agri-food system is like looking at the pieces of a puzzle. You can’t see the full picture at first, and only when you put it together do you have a sense of the whole picture. If you don’t look at the system in a holistic way—if you don’t analyze and value it as a system—you don’t understand the consequences.
The current food system produces a lot of externalities, and a lot of the costs do not show up in agriculture production, but they show up in human consumption because of the high costs for food-related diseases. Therefore, the most important thing is to look at externalities—negative, as well as positive externalities, What I have learned is that cheap food can be very expensive if we don’t apply a systems approach.
FT: And why do you think cheap food is so expensive?
AM: Because when you buy food at a very low price in the supermarket, it could have a high impact on the environment by polluting water, or eroding soil, and it also has a negative impact on people’s health. If you look at the price tag in the supermarket, a kilogram may only cost US$1.99, but the prices don’t tell us the truth, because of the externalities.
This also works the other way around. You can see food which has been produced in a sustainable manner, which protects the environment, which is healthy for people, and it might be a bit more expensive than junk food, but you do not see the positive externalities. Therefore, our prices don’t tell us the truth, and TEEB AgriFood is working to change that disconnect.
FT: What potential limitations does the TEEB AgriFood framework have?
AM: It is very complex, and it requires a change in mindset. We must get away from one of the most dominant paradigms in the food system, which is that food must have a low price in the supermarket. We need to get used to the idea that food needs to be valued in a holistic way, and even though it might be inconvenient, we should look at the true cost of our food. And then we will find out that food being a bit more expensive is much cheaper for society and the health of the planet.
FT: How will the TEEB AgriFood report be useful to local governments and communities?
AM: If you look at food production only from a price perspective, and the old paradigm of the cheaper the better, you run into a trap because the long-term sustainability of our food production system is not a given. Our food systems are at risk because of the wrong price signals. Local governments and communities are all living in landscapes and to maintain the sustainability of landscapes through rehabilitating soil fertility, and to protect biodiversity, requires a different approach. TEEB AgriFood supports this by opening new ways to manage natural resources and support the health of communities.
FT: Why is the work that TEEB AgriFood does important, not just for policymakers but for farmers, eaters, businesses, and the funding and donor communities?
AM: The overarching importance of TEEB AgriFood is that we must link the health of people with the health of the planet, and we can only ensure long-term food security if our food systems don’t destroy the basis of food production. Ecosystems are the basis for food production. Therefore, to achieve the 2030 agenda and to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need tools that allow us to make an assessment of the sustainability of food systems. Currently, the health systems of the world are spending billions of dollars every year because of unsustainably produced foods with negative health impacts. The TEEBAgriFood framework supports decisions of investors and could help to avoid stranded assets. As a long-term investor, you should not invest in something if the long-term consequences are so negative, doing more of the same can damage the actual ecosystem, and it creates a lot of health problems for people. If you are a responsible donor or responsible funder, TEEB AgriFood helps you consider the consequences.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEB AgriFood report?
AM: Food prices don’t tell the truth. Very often cheap food is very expensive once you consider all the consequences.
FT: Do you have any final thoughts or important messages that we haven’t already covered?
AM: TEEB AgriFood is trying to pull together the latest scientific results on food systems. We tried to link together the latest findings of economists, environmentalists, agriculturalists, people looking at labor and trade and science to fight poverty. If you bring these results together in a new way, you can see that the system is more than all the different parts of the disciplinary sciences working on it.
The goal of TEEBAgriFood 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.