Dr. Walter Pengue is an agricultural engineer specializing in improving plant genetics ecological economics, and agroecology. He is on the Steering Committee for and is a chapter author of the new report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood). This report evaluates the world’s agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.
Dr. Pengue helped found the Argentine/Uruguayan Association of Ecological Economics (ASAUEE), the Ibero-American Network of Ecological Economics (REDIBEE), and the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA). He is a Member of the Board of Directors of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), Professor of Ecology at the Periurban Institute (ICO) at the Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento (Buenos Aires, Argentina), and Director of the Postgraduate Specialization on Ecological Economics at the University of Buenos Aires. Dr. Pengue is a former scientific member of the Resource Pannel at the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). He is currently a scientific member of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Dr. Pengue is the author of numerous books on ecological economics, the green economy, the impact of new technologies in agriculture, sustainable models of agricultural development, and production alternatives.
Food Tank sat down with Dr. Pengue to discuss how the TEEBAgriFood report addresses the realities and challenges of the eco-agri-food system.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
Walter Pengue (WP): Conventional research does not incorporate unintended consequences, called externalities, and is limited when interpreting the complexity of food systems. The TEEBAgriFood report is promising because it creates a comprehensive assessment of systems. Externalities are generated in each part of the process, but we must dig deeper to understand the complexity of the entire local, regional, and global eco-agri-food system. Ecology and the economy must be incorporated in the food system at the same level as social, ethical, and cultural issues. Externalities become evident from an ecological, social, and economic perspective when analyzing transfers and changes in resources’ stocks. These are starting to be accounted for, such as ecological footprints.
Traditional agricultural systems are important for food production, cultural functions, and diversity and today we are simplifying those systems. Simplification generates costs because biodiversity, cultural diversity, and traditional knowledge are lost. And these are values that cannot be measured by a price tag. One of the most important problems of agricultural production is that it only partially considers externalities. Economic costs are measured by visible externalities, such as climate change or disease, but TEEB AgriFood identifies invisible features within externalities such as the relevance of cultural heritage. Food systems that are sustainable are tremendously relevant to growing food security.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
WP: The first thing that should be understood is the complexity and scale of eco-agri-food system problems. People need to eat within their own environment and culture. Globalization revolutionized technological systems and access to food, but it generates unseen externalities. Large companies strongly influence the food system, which harms small, local societies. Policymakers, donors, or funders, must recognize that an important way to support food processing is through increases in crop productivity, innovation, and technology transfer. However, we must account for and measure externalities produced by these processes. On one hand, it is helping to guarantee adequate and nutrient dense food for people within their own culture and locale. On the other hand, we must think how to re-educate the growing malnourished population whose impact extends beyond malnutrition.
The current global food system will collapse if it doesn’t change. It is important that all actors, from nations to traders, see the need for changes and work together to find practical solutions. The food system is linked to the health and pharmaceutical system, and together, for a healthy society and environment, it must change. It is not possible to fix the food system with a few partial measures.
FT: How can economists improve our understanding of the ecological impacts of our food system?
WP: This report contributes a different perspective to conventional economics. Providing an understanding of resource flows and non-monetary costs helps to recognize the earth’s limits. The earth can no longer withstand this exploitative system and therefore it must be changed. Along with the monetary aspect of the food system, it is important to understand what happens to the flows and physical stocks of natural resources as civilizations generate unsustainable conditions. A focus on consumerism and food consumption is destroying the planet. Empty, low nutrient meals, are not food. Not only have habits changed, but also foods. When was the last time you consumed a potato with the flavor, color, and smell of potatoes? We are not just losing food, we are losing food quality. The ultra-processed products with unknown origins, affect our quality of life.
FT: What is the best path towards sustainable agriculture to support a growing global population?
WP: The growing population is not the problem, instead it’s our eating habits and the rise of bioenergy, biomaterials, bioconstruction, etcetera. There is growing competition for biomass that did not exist before, and it is generating new economic and environmental costs. It is essential to strengthen local food systems, fair trade networks, scientific information, and environmental and food education while decreasing the transportation distance of food and the use of fertilizers and monocrops. Enhancing the consumption and production systems in rural and urban areas, along with prioritizing the social economy and feeding of populations over biomass production, and the promotion of eco-agri-food practices are all crucial to long-term success.
FT: What are the advantages to developing a universal and comprehensive evaluation framework?
WP: By analyzing a wide range of perspectives, externalities, costs, and issues surrounding natural resources, agricultural models, and global food systems, the TEEBAgriFood report provides an overarching framework for policymakers. Therefore, it can measure not only prices and values but also the importance of a global approach to this process. The diversity of contributing experts has allowed for a diverse and integrated report presenting a new perspective of our unsustainable food system. However, to change the current trends of public policy and research, accurate, scientific, and concise information is necessary.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?
WP: This report’s advantage is how it addresses the complexity of diverse agricultural models and food systems. The key is not in producing more, or cheaper, it’s about understanding the enormous costs and future restrictions if the issues remain unchanged. By identifying and valuing hidden costs, the TEEBAgriFood report allows researchers and policymakers to incorporate invisible externalities into their work, laying the foundation for future analysis. The enormous costs generated by the world food system indicates that the system is not sustainable. I have no doubt that the public will understand the content and necessity of the report.
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. 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