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True Cost of Food

Economists often refer to “externalities,” defined as the (often unintended) costs or benefits of a production method that affect people who did not participate in the decision making process. A synonym might be “by-product.”

A positive externality might look like this: a farmer who grows apples unintentionally provides a benefit to a neighboring beekeeper, because the beekeeper’s bees get access to a good source of nectar and make more honey. A negative externality might look like this: an industrial swine operation produces manure that infiltrates a municipal water supply, and the city, using taxpayer dollars, spends a great deal to clean the polluted water to render it safe for human use and consumption.

The field of “true cost accounting” reflects an economic principle in which all the external costs (externalities) are considered when determining the full cost of production—and includes calculating the price tags of negative externalities.  (The field goes by other names, as well, such as “full cost accounting,” “true cost economy,” “natural capital accounting,” and “triple bottom line.”) At the Center, we often use the term “true cost of food,” given our focus on food system issues. The true cost of food is essentially a method for assessing the costs and benefits of any type of food production system and how those costs and benefits may affect people, both directly and indirectly.

While we recognize that research into the true cost of food is critical to understanding a wide range of food system-related public health issues, we’re also keenly aware that globally, there’s an urgent need to move toward healthier and more sustainable food systems.  The reality is that we don’t have time to wait for all true cost of food research and analysis to be completed before taking action. In this vein, we hope that our explorations into the true cost of food will provide, if not immediate answers, at least insight that is useful to the global community in developing informed and educated plans of action for a healthy, equitable, and more sustainable food system.

Here are some examples of our explorations, interviews with thought leaders, and resources on the true cost of food: