Pavan Sukhdev is the Founder-CEO of Gist-Advisory, a sustainability consultancy, and is on the Steering Committee for the new, groundbreaking report “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food” (TEEBAgriFood). This report explores how to evaluate our agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental impacts and dependencies along food value chains.
Sukhdev started his career as a banker and was Managing Director of the Global Markets Division at Deutsche Bank. From 2008 to 2011 he was seconded to the United Nations as Study Leader of TEEB (“The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity”), an international initiative commissioned by the G8+5 and hosted by UN Environment, on the value of nature’s contributions to people and the social and economic costs of their loss. Pavan and his team delivered the TEEB report suite in 2010 at the 10 th summit of the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD, COP-10, Nagoya). As the Special Adviser and Head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) Green Economy Initiative, he released the landmark report Towards a Green Economy. While at Yale University under the McCluskey Fellowship, Sukhdev taught a graduate course on TEEB and wrote Corporation 2020, a book on transforming business for tomorrow’s world. He now supports UNEnvironment as a Goodwill Ambassador and is Special Adviser to TEEBAgriFood. His work has been recognized through several awards, including the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development and the Blue Planet Prize.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Pavan Sukhdev about the TEEBAgriFood report, the consequences of our current food system, and the importance of properly evaluating those consequences to promote system change.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
Pavan Sukhdev (PS): The most interesting thing I learned from TEEBAgriFood is that there is no single ‘most interesting thing’ when it comes to food systems! What worries me are the many dimensions, scale, and seriousness of several invisible impacts of today’s food systems, and how little they are acknowledged and acted upon by policymakers. For example, our diets are now the main burden of disease, including lifestyle diseases like obesity and type-2 diabetes, pesticide-caused health problems such as endocrine disruption, and increasing antibiotic resistance through eating animal products. When looking at food value chains from ‘cradle-to-grave,’ including deforestation and waste, they are the largest component of global greenhouse gas emissions—45 to 57 percent—and hence climate change. On the positive side, smallholder farms provide livelihoods to around a billion people. However, none of these important features of food systems draw enough policy attention.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
PS: I’m not sure that there is an ethical answer to your question! Can it be ethical to ‘rank,’ for example, climate change impacts on future generations versus health impacts on current generations versus the risk of losing several hundred million village livelihoods? Each of these impending outcomes are morally equally unacceptable. Political leadership should be focussed on making their electorates aware of all this and making policy changes to solve ALL of them, not one or the other.
FT: How does the TEEBAgriFood report build on the findings of the 2010 TEEB Synthesis report?
PS: TEEBAgriFood takes a socially inclusive approach to the largest drivers of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss—the subject of the 2010 TEEB Synthesis Report—which are in reality eco-agri-food systems. It recognizes that these systems cut across serious ethical, social, economic, political, environmental, and ecological issues that cannot be addressed independently, in ‘silos,’ but instead together, holistically. It provides a structured framework, methodological guidance, and examples of applications that will enable decisionmakers to reflect serious realities in their policy and business choices.
FT: What potential limitations does the TEEBAgriFood framework have?
PS: Because of its holistic, multi-criteria, wide-angle approach, this framework is not easy to apply, but it is ethically, socially, economically, and environmentally more appropriate than a narrow lens, and will not lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. To be effective, it needs research and data on more factors, which may be costly. It also needs a country-level willingness to collaborate among different ministries—finance, commerce, agriculture, health, environment, etcetera—and across countries affected by common problems.
FT: Why is it important to value the environmental impact of our food system?
PS: The ecosystem and biodiversity impacts of food systems are among their most serious, yet economically invisible, impacts, together with their impacts on human health, global climate change, and village livelihoods. Each of these impacts must be valued so that policymakers and business leaders recognize and respond appropriately to their economic and social importance. We are accustomed to managing what gets measured and valued, responding to losses only after we have recognized and demonstrated the value of what is being lost. Valuation is a must because, without it, human responses are either muted or missing, be they policy responses, business responses, or citizens responses.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEB-AgriFood report?
PS: TEEBAgriFood provides a holistic, ethical, wide-angle lens, the so-called ‘TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework,’ with which to really understand our food systems today. People should ask decisionmakers in governments and businesses to use this wide-angle lens to evaluate the complete, eco-agri-food system instead of using the narrow lens of per-hectare farm productivity.
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, decisionmakers, and businesses more explicitly look at the impacts of different practices and policies.