Valuating biodiversity and ecosystem impacts of agriculture

Valuating biodiversity and ecosystem impacts of agriculture

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Danielle Nierenberg
Conventional agricultural practices can adversely impact biodiversity and ecosystem health, according to a recent report published in Solutions. In fact, both corporations and eaters rarely pay for the true cost of food on the environment, public health, and social welfare and equity. But The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative hosted by the UN Environment, focuses on “making nature’s values visible.” Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the TEEB office valuates biodiversity and ecosystem services in economic terms and suggests how to implement those values in business and government.foodtank“We found that the need to value nature and its services, what we call ecosystem services, has become quite an interesting new area to be explored by policymakers, by businesses, and by NGOs,” says Pavan Sukhdev, TEEB’s Study Leader and the UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador. TEEB looks at valuation in terms of how to use it, when to use it, and its implications for policymakers, businesses, and citizens.
A project initiated in October of 2016, TEEB for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) aims to valuate ecosystems and agricultural industries as a whole. Leaders of the project work to capture economic value by introducing mechanisms that incentivize environmental stewardship. These components of food systems are often assessed in isolation from one another, despite their many and vital links, TEEB refers to this as the eco-agri-food system’s complex. Currently, economic linkages in eco-agri-food systems are virtually impossible to identify—something that TEEBAgriFood seeks to change.
“What we try to do is to develop a common denominator where all the actors of an incredible complex food system can work together,” Alexander Müller, the Study Leader and Steering Committee Chair of TEEBAgriFood, said during the Uncommon Collaborations Panel at Food Tank’s 2016 Washington, D.C., Summit. He added that “the challenge so far is that the work in the food system is organized in silos. You have the farmers, the environmentalists, people processing and distributing food, stores, consumers, and the health system, all working independently. Overall, this system is not sustainable…To fix the problems, we need a common denominator.”
A writer’s workshop to develop TEEBAgriFood’s Foundations Report took place from February 13 to 15, 2017. During the three-day workshop hosted by UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC), participants jointly drafted a detailed outline and work plan. This collaboration will guide future research and policy recommendations for the project.
To create this common denominator, TEEBAgriFood hopes to create new partnerships and collaborations in the agricultural industry. The project has analyzed three different maize production systems—industrial, conventional, and organic. By valuating how corporations use the yield, researchers can map their impact on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health. According to a November 2016 article in Nature, production of maize lowers the price for high-fructose corn syrup, increasing the use of maize-based sweeteners in soft drinks, which increases the global prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Researchers working with TEEBAgriFood are also examining other commodities such as rice, palm oil, soya beans, livestock, fisheries, and agroforestry.
Overall, TEEBAgriFood hopes to demonstrate the true worth of food systems. Findings from the project will help decisionmakers to understand the complex links between ecosystems and food better. Extending on the initial evaluations will require collaboration from many experts and farmers. Opportunities for involvement include becoming a peer reviewer, submitting relevant evidence, increasing publicity and outreach, and fundraising for future project activities. Click here for more information.
TEEBAgriFood is hosted by the UN Environment and receives support from the European Commission, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and the Government of Norway.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank, www.foodtank.com)

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