Valuing the Invisible

A new initiative explores how today’s agro-ecological systems are suffering from a distorted economic and policy environment.
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Agriculture and food systems provide a vast array of values, both positive and negative, that are economically invisible.

Agricultural systems deliver many benefits to society. An industrial cornfield in the United States might yield several hundred bushels of corn per year for processing into foodstuffs, animal grain or ethanol, which could be exported and consumed halfway across the planet. Meanwhile, a cooperative of small-scale cocoa farms in the Congo Basin could feed up to 80 per cent of the local population, employ dozens of producers and sustain the livelihoods of countless local families.

In economic terms, these values are largely visible in the sense that they can be measured and accounted for in global and national economies. But agriculture and food systems also provide a vast array of values, both positive and negative, that are economically invisible.

For example, agricultural production systems create significant costs to human well-being, largely in the form of health impacts during production (exposure to agrochemicals and antibiotics) and consumption (malnutrition). Moreover, ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss, a considerable portion of which is caused by agricultural production itself, undermine the natural resource base that the agricultural sector – and society as a whole – rely upon.

But farming landscapes also provide invisible positive values in that they are an important source of cultural heritage and social cohesion. And rarely are the invaluable contributions of nutrient cycling, pollination, pest control and water flow from catchment areas reflected in national agricultural production accounts.

The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) (www.teebweb.org) is a global initiative, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), focused on “making nature’s values visible”. Its principal objective is to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels. “TEEB for Agriculture & Food” (TEEBAGFOOD, www.teebweb.org/agriculture-and-food/) is a research initiative that will apply the TEEB approach in the context of agriculture and food, providing detailed insight into the importance of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the (visible and invisible) impacts of different production systems on human and ecological well-being. The initiative will also showcase policy opportunities for sustainable development.

An interim report launched in December 2015 provides a first look at what this study seeks to achieve. Preliminary findings from a number of exploratory studies on livestock, rice, agroforestry, inland fisheries and palm oil reveal some critical insights into how today’s agro-ecological systems are suffering from a distorted economic and policy environment.

The initiative will produce technical reports on the scientific and economic foundations of the “eco-agri-food systems complex”, as well as the policy dimensions of this work. The latter component will identify a range of possible policy interventions across different stages of the value chain and offer specific recommendations on how policy-makers and businesses can facilitate a transition towards more sustainable agricultural practices.