Food System Economics Commission—Why now?

Dear Friends,

I recently took on the role of Interim Commission Director for the Food System Economics Commission—an independent, interdisciplinary academic commission working to deliver a state-of-the-art scientific assessment on the economics of the transition to healthy, inclusive and sustainable food systems.

Food systems at all levels suffer from flawed design, supply chain vulnerabilities, and compounding market failures; human health is put immediately at risk as a result. The health and resilience of natural systems is also threatened by these intertwined and compounding areas of system-level risk.

  • Every year, 11 million people die prematurely because they are not eating the healthy food they need.
  • The way we produce food is also the leading cause behind transgressing five of the nine planetary boundaries, as revealed by the EAT Lancet Commission report.
  • Our food system is the primary cause of the 6th mass extinction, a major source of carbon emissions, as well as the single largest contributor to global deforestation, overuse of fresh water and eutrophication of our aquatic ecosystems.
  • The Food and Land Use Coalition’s Growing Better report showed that the hidden costs of food and land use systems today exceed their market value by $2 trillion, showing how food systems are actively depleting our natural and human capital.

The lack of a comprehensive integrated assessment of the economics of food systems contributes to the difficulty of motivating a transition to sustainable, healthy, resilience-building food systems. The Commission’s work must address not only the standard economics of food, and the sustainability challenge, but emerging vulnerabilities and system-level risks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many disruptions to life as we were accustomed to living it. We have learned that our consumer economies are vulnerable to pervasive negative side-effects from even a planned, life-saving temporary suspension of ordinary activity.

  • In data-rich economies like the United States, we have seen 45 million people file for unemployment insurance in just 13 weeks—a level of unemployment not seen since the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
  • At least half of all households have suffered a decline in wages.
  • It is estimated 2.7 billion workers around the world have been affected by pandemic-related shutdown measures (4 of every 5 workers), with the potential for permanent loss of nearly 200 million jobs.
  • Most urgently of all—while mass quarantine and social distancing measures are necessary to save lives—hunger has rapidly expanded.
  • The number of people suffering from acute hunger, across the world, is expected to double to a quarter of a billion by the end of this year.

With lives at stake, economies in distress, and the future of sustainable human development at risk, we could not afford to slow down the vital work of this Commission. So, we have worked tirelessly throughout this period of emergency social distancing to ensure we can bring together some of the world’s leading economists and food system experts, to do this urgently needed work.

The Food System Economics Commission will produce a scientifically robust, rigorous and independent assessment of our food system, its economic ramifications, and pathways to a better future. We are also working to make sure the internal process and eventual knowledge production from this Commission actively includes vulnerable communities, as well as actionable insights into the health and resilience of people, economies, food systems, and the biosphere.

We want the FSE Commission Report to serve as a foundation for a new, more inclusive, more detailed and multidisciplinary way of examining, planning, and designing food system economies, so they are sustainable, healthy, and resilience-building for people, and for the planet.

I am grateful to the convening partners—the EAT Foundation, the Food and Land Use Coalition, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research—and to the Secretariat and Co-Chairs of the Commission for the trust they placed in me to serve in this role, at such a time.

We have much work to do, if we are to succeed in this complex mission, and we will be looking to a wider network of partners and leaders to feed critical innovations and discoveries into this process. We are all crew on this lucky, life-giving vessel called Earth. This Commission‘s work will be one contribution to steering clear of danger.

May you enjoy health and safety in these difficult times,
Joe Robertson