Farmhouse with Two Figures

The Cost of Broken Global Food Systems: $15 Trillion per Year

Global food systems are a slow-rolling disaster, gaining momentum, and costing the global economy $15 trillion per year. That’s the bad news from a new policy report of the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC). The good news is that we have options, they report, which could produce economic and health benefits adding up to as much as ten trillion dollars annually.

Is this a no-brainer? Or is it too good to be true?

Health and Environmental Costs

The costs are pretty much unmistakeable. Most of them come from costs to our health, borne largely by people living with obesity. The food supply is promoting a costly rise in this disease worldwide, says the report:

“FSEC estimates health costs to be at least 11 trillion USD. The economic costs of ill health due to food systems are measured through their negative effects on labor productivity. Those are driven by the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and cancer which can be attributed to food. A large share of this burden is born by people living with obesity, currently estimated at 770 million people.”

Beyond the costs of diminished global health, food systems are taking a toll on the environment, estimated to add another three trillion dollars to the total economic burden they cause.

Options for a Better Path

In their four years of work on this report, much of the FSEC efforts went into mapping and modeling a better path forward, to offer better prospects for environmental and human health. They aimed to eliminate undernutrition, improve the economic status of farmers, establish more sustainable land use policies, shift to sustainable agricultural practices, reduce atmospheric carbon, and require less labor in food production. FSEC modeling suggests the economic benefits would be great:

“Estimates of those benefits, measured as reductions in the unaccounted costs of food systems outlined above, amount to at least 5 trillion USD per year. When the full effects of a global food system transformation on incomes are factored in, estimates of its benefits rise to 10 trillion USD per year.”

A Shift to Sustainability

The imperative for change is increasingly hard to ignore. We have passed the point where our consumption of natural resources exceeds the capacity of the planet to replenish them. This is why our food systems are plainly unsustainable.

We can argue about the details of how to do it, but a shift to more sustainable systems will come. Delays merely increase the costs of that shift.

Click here for the report, here and here for further perspective on it.

Farmhouse with Two Figures, painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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February 19, 2024