Vote With Your Wallet and Change the Food System


Image result for dr gunars plataisDr. Gunars Platais is a Senior Environmental Economist at the World Bank where he works to integrate environmental concerns into the policies of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. He is a chapter author for the new report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood). The report evaluates the world’s agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.

Platais received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California Berkeley and his M.Sc. in Natural Resources Management from Colorado State University. Prior to his employment at the World Bank, Platais worked as both a Forest Engineer for Cia Agricola e Florestal Santa Barbara and a Natural Resource Management Policy Adviser for ABT Associates. At the World Bank, Gunars specializes in integrating natural resource management, conservation policy, and decision-making processes. He leads multi-disciplinary and inter-institutional teams that address complex environmental issues and helped lead the implementation of payment for ecosystem services throughout the world.

Food Tank sat down with Platais to discuss theories of change in the TEEBAgriFood report.

Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?

Dr. Gunars Platais (GP): The immense difficulty of working across disciplines. During the creation of the report, there were economists, ecologists, scientists, and a whole range of people working to bring rich, new, and varied perspectives to the discussion. The eco-agri-food system is complex, and the range of people involved in the TEEBAgriFood process reflects this complexity.

FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?

GP: Despite all the battles to end global hunger, there have been only baby steps towards reaching this goal. The current food system produces enough food to feed the world’s population, but, because of politics, more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. It’s a tragic and ironic consequence of the current eco-agri-food system.

FT: How can TEEBAgriFood help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

GP: By using a multidisciplinary approach, like in the TEEBAgriFood report, it is possible to analyze the tons per hectare produced and the intended and unintended consequences of production in the eco-agri-food system. When you look at the planet, there are amazing places that are suitable for agriculture production. Instead, companies insist on producing in arid or semi-arid climates that are resource intensive and unproductive. The integrated approach presented in the TEEBAgriFood report looks beyond production to show the long-term environmental consequences, thereby making decisions more efficient, effective, environmentally friendly, and in line with the SDGs.

FT: How do we best convey the results of the TEEBAgriFood study to the public? To decision makers?

GP: It’s clear that one size doesn’t fit all, and it depends on whom you are talking to. If you’re speaking to an individual at the supermarket you must tailor your message in a certain way. Similarly, if you’re presenting to a minister of agriculture or a minister of economics, it requires a completely different, and likely economic, approach. However, economic impacts are not just dollars and cents, but also the unintended economic burdens on other systems like health care. For example, the increased use of pesticides may make food cheaper in the supermarket, but it could also increase the likelihood of cancer in a population, which in turn increases the total economic impact of food. Therefore, the message must be tailored to make the TEEBAgriFood report more applicable to a general audience.

FT: How do we make the public interested in the TEEBAgriFood report?

GP: By conveying the significance of acting in an integrated manner. Brazil passed the first draft of a law that relaxes restrictions on pesticide use. This new law will increase the productivity and profit margins of farmers, however, the public must know that increased pesticide use will likely have a negative impact on people’s health. If presented in the right manner, this information can sensitize the public to these issues and grow support for an integrated approach.

FT: What is the best approach to changing our food system? Is it through international agreements? Grassroots efforts? The private sector?

GP: It’s going to require a mixture of a bottom-up and a top-down approach. At the grassroots level, consumers must become sensitized to the inefficiencies of the current system, whether that be through moral persuasion or the realization of the gravity of the situation. At the top, you have policymakers who have become more aware of the negative impacts of business as usual and are beginning to recognize the value of scientists and other technical advisors. The bottom line is that change requires both grassroots pressure and abundant scientific information to influence policymakers to make the right decisions. Change is also driven by international agreements that create a uniform and fair playing field for agricultural producers. It’s complex, but there is no use running from it.

FT: What is the most important action a private citizen can take to make a sustainable eco-agri-food system?

GP: The eco-agri-food system is a market economy and therefore people influence the market by increasing or decreasing a product’s demand. If people purchase an environmentally sustainable product, the market will respond. By voting with their wallet for organic or biodynamic produce, people will dictate what the eco-agri-food system produces.

FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?

GP: The evaluation framework is the true soul of TEEBAgriFood. It looks at food production in a more comprehensive manner than any previous report. It is an absolute necessity that the framework gets into the hands of those who are working in food and health. The report is scientific, it is commercial, and it is the whole range of people producing or consuming food in one way or another, and it allows for a better understanding of the impacts of eco-agri-food decisions.

FT: Do you have any final thoughts or important messages?

GP: The eco-agri-food system is Pandora’s box. There is so much to work on. The eco-agri-food system is a political sphere, and it’s a tragedy that enough food is produced to feed the world but the political system does not allow for it. This political conundrum must be solved, and that requires international agreements and sensitizing people to environmentally friendly systems. As an environmental economist, I am always looking for linkages with the environment and I continue to notice the complete disconnect between the food on people’s plates and the environmental impact of that food in the field. Everything is interconnected, and both the upstream and downstream impacts are essential to understanding the true cost of the eco-agri-food system. The TEEBAgriFood report is the only report able to analyze these impacts and initiate conversations and change in the global food system.

You can download a free copy of the TEEBAgriFood report HERE.

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.

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