Counting the hidden $12-trillion cost of a broken food system

The world’s food system costs trillions in poor health and ecological damage. On World Food Day, governments and researchers must commit to more-regular audits of these unseen expenses.

Photo of a pile of carrots: One-third of food does not need to be wasted.Credit: Alistair Scott/Alamy

There’s an unfolding tragedy at the heart of the world’s food system and its cause lies mainly at the door of governments, food manufacturers and agribusinesses.

The situation is urgent. One-third of all food goes to waste, and yet governments and other players in the food system are unable to prevent 820 million people from regularly going hungry. The food industry, especially, bears responsibility for the fact that 680 million people are obese, but it is largely governments and their citizens who have to pick up the costs of treatment.

When industrial-scale farms draw copious quantities of water to irrigate crops, again it is taxpayers who foot the bill for the water scarcity that can follow. It’s the same for agrochemicals and their effects on the health of people and ecosystems. Governments find themselves shouldering the costs of biodiversity loss, and mopping up agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions.

These hidden costs — or externalities — must be met, and last month a landmark report estimated them to be somewhere in the region of US$12 trillion a year, rising to $16 trillion by 2050. That is a staggering figure — equivalent to the gross domestic product of China.

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