Dr. Jes Weigelt is the head of the Global Soil Forum at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). Weigelt is also 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.
Weigelt received his PhD in Agronomy at the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Jes’s work at the IASS focuses on coordinating knowledge exchanges between scientists and decision makers and enabling access to land and sustainable management. Jes also serves as the Head of Programmes at the TMG Think Tank. Before working at the IASS, Weigelt worked for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
Food Tank talked to Weigelt on how the TEEBAgriFood framework links the Sustainable Development Goals and the need for a common language in the eco-agri-food system.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most significant obstacle to changing the eco-agri-food system?
Jes Weigelt (JW): Convincing others to change the business as usual procedures of companies and countries. Nations that benefit from maintaining the status quo in the eco-agri-food system have a strong interest in opposing reforms that increase sustainability. In the European Union (EU), for example, organizations and unions that support industrial agriculture advocate for stagnating the system, as it significantly benefits their needs.
FT: What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
JW: At first glance, the framework appears to be a monetary valuation exercise. However, its true purpose is to provide a common language to the people who work in the eco-agri-food industry and come from diverse backgrounds. Creating a common language allows people who work in the eco-agri-food system to properly communicate and ultimately shed light on the unique and novel aspects of the eco-agri-food system.
FT: How can the TEEBAgriFood evaluation be used by the general public?
JW: To popularize and make the TEEBAgrifood framework more useful to the public, the knowledge in the framework would benefit from a broader and more accessible approach. The framework provides valuable insights into the interlinkages and daily interactions amongst the different environmental and societal areas encompassed in the eco-agri-food system. If used properly, the framework can help people make decisions such as who they will vote for in an election, or what food they will consume today. Its use of infographics are essential to its acceptance by the general population as they are easily digestible and provide the knowledge necessary to create change.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
JW: There are many impacts of our food system that often go unnoticed. In Germany, for example, high nitrate levels in the groundwater due to large-scale animal production has been linked to polluted water bodies and the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Additionally, agriculture policy in countries such as France and Germany does not serve the needs of those who work in the eco-agri-food system, resulting in many smallholder farmers struggling to survive.
FT: How can TEEBAgriFood help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
JW: The SDGs are a comprehensive framework for reforming food production and consumption. However, they lack an instrument to manage the interlinkages and complexities between the different nations. The SDGs are supported by the TEEBAgriFood framework as it is able to understand and identify the interlinkages and synergies in different policy options. For example, the framework recognizes the positive externalities of urban agriculture in providing nutritional benefits to those who normally cannot access high-quality food. However, it also shows the true cost of negative externalities, such as when deforestation and human rights violations occur when German pigs eat imported Brazilian soy. By providing this holistic approach, the framework ensures policymakers can then select the policy that best suits their needs.
FT: How do we incentivize the private sector to improve the eco-agri-food system?
JW: The TEEBAgriFood framework must be used to create public awareness of what the food system does and does not achieve. Incentivization is one thing, but to improve industry standards and practices, politicians and the private sector must be held accountable. Oxfam International recently published a report on human rights violations in the food chain. If more nations adopted this approach and focused on accountability over incentives it would expose many hidden externalities and allow for novel solutions to be discovered.
FT: Who or what should be the main driving force for change in our eco-agri-food system?
JW: There is no one actor or activity that can solve the agriculture system. Instead, it requires various groups, who are at the different ends of the eco-agri-food system to make changes. Consumers must be empowered to vote with their wallet to decide what is a public good and what goods deserve subsidies. They also need to have the power to hold politicians and producers accountable. High-level policymakers can drive change by using the framework to design policies and determine the results of different policy options. It’s a huge task that requires people from many different sectors and the framework provides a common language to assist in that work.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?
JW: People must consider the true cost of the food they are buying. Cheap food has many external costs to the health of humans and the environment, which are not included in the price. The food people purchase in the store may appear, at first glance, to be inexpensive, but the true price is always paid eventually. The report recognizes the true cost of food and helps people and decision makers decide on the best course of action.
FT: Is there anything else you’d like to add or final thoughts?
JW: The TEEBAgriFood framework is not a technical exercise, instead it’s a tool to empower. It comes across as nerdy and techy, but it empowers the agriculture system by providing actors of all backgrounds a pathway to long-term agriculture sustainability.
Click here to view the TEEBAgriFood 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.
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