Show Me Your Food Systems Budget


Geneva, 13 July 2022 - 

In announcing the US Budget for 2023, President Biden said "My dad had an expression. Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value."

In the follow up to the UN Food Systems Summit, national policymakers are building their food system transformation pathways to articulate their priorities and goals and how they will be achieved. This is genuinely exciting, and in our opinion is the most important legacy of the Summit process. But while minds have to be changed, so do means. Priorities have to be reflected in budget spreadsheets as well as in speeches if food system transformation is to happen.

We think budgets can and should reflect improved food systems measurement in three areas: government spending, national income, and the true value of food.  

First, government budgets. When policymakers think of food systems they often default to agriculture. The UK’s recently published Food Strategy is a case in point: the farm budget is the only food related budget that is mentioned. But we know that governments are involved in food systems beyond the farm gate: in food processing, transport, storage, procurement, campaigns, levies, and regulation.  A flotilla of ministries – including agriculture, business, climate, education, environment, health, science, trade and transport -  need to be aligned for effective food systems that deliver on food security, good nutrition, climate mitigation and adaptation, jobs, and resilience. Line items from these ministries, and others, would contribute to a "food systems budget".

We think budgets can and should reflect improved food systems measurement in three areas: government spending, national income, and the true value of food.  

Neither of us has seen such a budget. Constructing one would require the development of coefficients that convert a given budget line into a food system equivalent. Not easy, for sure, but if done transparently it would generate useful debates on the scope of control different departments of government have over food systems and on their ability to deliver on the prosperity, people and planet agenda. 

Second, governments not only control their own spending, but they also influence national income generation. They provide positive and negative incentives for the private sector through fiscal and regulatory policy.  And the private sector resources deployed in food systems are typically much larger than those of governments: just think of all the large, medium, and small food and non-food companies that are within or affect food systems. So we need National Income Accounts that are constructed using a methodology aligned with food systems budgets. Then governments could see how much of their country’s income depends on food systems and they can better align public spending allocations to enhance national income from this set of food activities.  

Grain against stock market prices - Priorities have to be reflected in budget spreadsheets if food system transformation is to happen

Priorities have to be reflected in budget spreadsheets as well as in speeches if food system transformation is to happen. © Shutterstock 

Finally, most budgets and incomes fail to account for spill-over effects, or externalities. Decisions about food - what to produce, how to process, store, transport and prepare it, and what to consume -  have far reaching effects on our environment and health. Diets are the number one driver of the burden of disease in all countries, putting immense pressure on health systems. Decisions taken within food systems are responsible for one third of all GHG emissions and are one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss, pushing us beyond safe planetary boundaries. Decision makers in the public and private sectors have little self-interest in disrupting convention to adopt true costs and benefits accounting. If they did, decisions to grow fruits and vegetables, pulses and nuts would suddenly become a lot more attractive. There are pioneers out there — New York State plans to use true value principles in its food procurement, and the De Aanzet supermarket chain in the Netherlands shows the true price of foods to its customers - but they need a level playing field so they can move from walking a tightrope to marching at the head of the crowd. 

If policymakers and businesses are serious about turning their food systems from problem generators to solution creators, we need to know how much governments are spending on them, how much national income is at stake within them, and how many hidden costs are being generated through decisions taken under wilful ignorance of externalities. 

As food systems are battered by climate change, COVID-19, and conflict, it is time to reveal our values embodied in food system budgets that deliver for people, planet and prosperity. Joe Biden’s dad was right.

As food systems are battered by climate change, COVID-19, and conflict, it is time to reveal our values embodied in food system budgets that deliver for people, planet and prosperity.

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