Dr. Harpinder Sandhu is an agricultural scientist with research interests in studying the interactions between society and the environment. His current research focuses on applying true cost accounting for the transformation of agriculture and food systems towards sustainability. He is an author of the new The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) report on how to evaluate our agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.
Dr. Harpinder Sandhu obtained a PhD in Agro-Ecology from Lincoln University New Zealand and has over two decades of professional experience in agriculture and rural development. Harpinder was nominated by the Australian Government to the United Nations Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). He served on the Advisory Panel on Agroecology in Asia Pacific region at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and expert at the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Network Asia Pacific, United Nations Development Program. Harpinder is an academic affiliated with Flinders University and University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Harpinder Sandhu about the application of the principles of ecological economics in agriculture and food systems and how the TEEBAgriFood report thinks outside the lens of productivity.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
Dr. Harpinder Sandhu (HS): The title of the project, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Agriculture and Food systems, captures the intention of this global initiative to understand, capture, and reflect the value of social, human, and natural capital related with agriculture and food systems in our economy. As a scientist contributing to this project, I have been fortunate to work with global leaders who are carrying this message from science to policy in partnership with the U. N. Environment and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. This is an extremely rewarding experience for me to better understand the global agriculture systems and how we can influence policies to improve the health of the environment, welfare of people involved in agriculture, food systems, and the well-being of society at large.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
HS: The current economic model does not include or reward the value of social, human, and natural capital in agriculture and food systems. This often leads to the promotion of practices that are harmful to farming, the environment, and people. The only measure of success in current agriculture systems is higher productivity. But such a narrow focus on productivity has left our freshwaters more polluted as there are increases in surface run-offs from farms, loss of biodiversity, degradation of soil, and greenhouse gas emissions. This focus also leads to poor health for the farm workers, and consumers as well. Therefore, the directions of the TEEBAgriFood suggests policymakers and donors to consider multi-dimensional approach for sustainabile agriculture and food systems and improve human and planetary health.
FT: How can economists improve our understanding of the ecological impacts of our food system?
HS: A branch of economics, environmental economics, has been long established to capture the impacts of economic activities on the environment. However, it considers that resources are plentiful and any damage to the environment can be managed by engineering or technological solutions. But over the last five decades, ecological economics has been providing the directions to manage our limited natural resources and has established links with human well-being by including social, human, and natural capital in the economic systems. This interdependence and coevolution of economic and natural ecosystems provides the theoretical framework of the TEEBAgriFood project.
FT: How can TEEBAgriFood’s evaluation be used by decision makers and donors and how can it change public dialogue?
HS: The TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework can help analyze different situations where policy can intervene. It advocates five families of applications: production systems, diets, food products, policy evaluation, and national accounts. These five applications cover a wide spectrum of agriculture and food sector in our economy. This evaluation can guide policymakers to evaluate these systems and respond accordingly. Such analysis can also direct public policy towards global food and nutritional security.
FT: What limitations are there with the TEEBAgriFood evaluation framework?
HS: This is a new endeavor to capture, analyze, and reflect the value of social, human, and natural capital in agriculture, which is a novel effort by the TEEBAgriFood community. The report’s scientific and economic foundations are the first major outcomes and are likely to lead into several applications of the framework by science, policy, and industry in the future. These applications will further help improve the framework, as currently there are few examples which analyze agriculture and the food sector with a multidimensional approach, which is advocated by the TEEBAgriFood framework.
FT: What parts of our eco-agri-food system work well—the best practices and success stories?
HS: The framework has been designed to analyze five families of applications: production systems, diets, food products, policy evaluation, and national accounts. Thus, it covers a wide range of eco-agri-food system applications. The examples discussed in the report in each of the five families provide comprehensive details and highlights how the TEEBAgriFood framework can help resolve challenges in existing agriculture and food systems. It advocates analyzing social, human, and natural capital in the entire value chain and eco-agri-food systems complex.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?
HS: The report is a comprehensive resource arguing the case for social, environmental, and economic sustainability in agriculture and food systems. It not only advocates for healthy and functional agricultural systems and improvement in human health, but it also provides a new and comprehensive evaluation framework, along with scientific and economic methods, and examples on how this can be achieved.
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. TEEBAgriFood 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.