The True Cost Accounting for Food: an interdisciplinary project

How much does our food really cost? Certainly, more than what we pay for it. The global food and agriculture industry is one of the main reasons why we’re exceeding our planet’s limits – with climate change and shrinking biodiversity as a result. The food and agriculture system is also associated with a number of societal ills such as underpaid labor, as well as public-health externalities. These are hidden or exogenous impacts that our food costs do not account for.

True cost accounting for food (TCAF) – measuring social, environmental, and health impacts in monetary terms – has been put forward at the national and international levels as a potentially powerful tool for transforming food systems. In this context and based on existing literature, we believe that the true cost of food could support the transformation of the Swiss food system towards a more sustainable, fair, and resilient one, as it allows us to go beyond a sectoral approach and embed food systems in their complexity.

The mission of the project is to contribute to the transformation of the Swiss food system by providing more comprehensive information about true cost accounting (TCA) for food. The project aims at understanding TCAF holistically in the Swiss context, by involving the different food system stakeholders. It identifies interdependencies and levers for change at different levels, including policy-making, the private sector, consumers, and public health, and the dynamic effects of possible TCAF interventions across the system. Eventually, the project would shift incentives towards more sustainable, healthy, and fair food for all.

On the one hand, this project provides more comprehensive knowledge of the true cost of food through a Swiss-level TCAF calculator and through the applications of TCAF on individual supply chains. On the other hand, the project addresses external conditions for implementation through a participatory process, policy analysis, and consumer behavior.

There are five areas of research:

  • Development of a TCAF calculator for Switzerland’s food system, that will be made available online so that Swiss food system actors can model the positive and negative effects of a change in their consumption and production habits.
  • Analysis of the role of businesses (including farms) in the food production chain to pinpoint potential hurdles and areas of improvement. This focus area will involve carrying out surveys and interviews with industry representatives to get their views on the TCAF approach.
  • Assessment of consumer habits and perceptions to understand how interventions on the food landscape can change consumer behavior and how best to communicate the true cost to consumers in order to change their behavior towards more virtuous diets
  • Theory of change & policy-making to create spaces of consensus through a dialogue with a set of representative actors of the Swiss food systems, by developing and updating throughout the project in a participatory way a system-based theory of change (ToC) for a more sustainable, resilient, and fair food system using TCAF.
  • Knowledge transfer among disciplines and education of the general public.

THE CONSORTIUM AND ACTORS INVOLVED

The project takes an interdisciplinary, holistic, and systemic approach to food systems. Several disciplines (agriculture, public health, environmental engineering, economics, business and innovation, behavioral sciences, and international relations) will work together to achieve the above-mentioned goals.

The consortium is currently composed of University of Lausanne (HEC and UNISANTE), EPFL (Laboratory for Environmental and Urban Economics – LEURE), HEG Fribourg (Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability), University of Bern (Centre for Development and Environment), and Bern University for Applied Sciences (School of Agriculture, Forest and Food Sciences, HAFL).

International TCAF experts and local business partners are also partnering in this initiative. The advisory board of the project is composed of ETHZ World Food Systems Center, Federal Office of Agriculture (OFAG), Agroscope, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), and Enterprise for Society Center.

This project received recognition through the approval of a CHF 3.2 million fund for 4 years by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SINERGIA grant). It initially received seed funding from the CROSS (UNIL-EPFL) interdisciplinary grant and Leenaards Foundation. The project also received funding from UNIL- Institute of Geography and Sustainability and EPFL-Integrative Food and Nutrition Center for the first Action Lab and from Mercator Foundation for the second Action Lab.

ACTION LABS

The project was launched in October 2022 through a first Action Lab which brought together participants representing different stakeholders of the Swiss food system. The second Action Lab, hold in Bern on 29 August 2023, has been organized to explore concrete implementation pathways for the true cost of food in Switzerland by engaging with the different stakeholders of the local food system.

Watch a video recap of the event: 

WATCH THE VIDEO OF OUR 2ND ACTION LAB