True Cost Accounting

Lead Organization:

The Sustainable Food Alliance, Inc.

Community of Practice:



Tanzania and Kenya




Food systems urgently need to be reshaped so that they become more durable, resilient and benign to the environment, human health and social welfare.  Current food and farming systems have been predicated on a narrow range of economic success measures such as output per hectare and profitability and have neglected the environmental, social and health dimensions without which food systems will not remain viable.  This has led producers into a spiral of intensification and specialisation in which they are trapped.Revealing where and how these wider impacts occur and putting financial costs on these is a critical step towards more sustainable food production because it is an essential pre-requisite to the design of policies and incentives to encourage and facilitate the necessary changes.  There is an established body of work describing the range of impacts related to agricultural systems, but most of these fail to take a systemic approach.  Simple comparisons between individual crops or commodities are generally unable to reflect the true value of a particular approach because they fail to capture the inter-relationships between different elements of the system (e.g. different phases of crop rotation).This project contributes to filling this gap by 1) assessing, quantifying and monetising impacts/’externalities’ at a farm level – taking a systemic approach to assessment, thus enabling comparisons between systems in terms of the net costs/benefits delivered to society;  2)  testing a methodology for conducting such assessments so that it can be refined and used for similar comparisons in future and 3) disseminating the results to the scientific community, decision makers and the mdia, including at a major conference ‘The True Cost of American Food’ that is being organized by the SFT and SFA and will take place in San Francisco in April 2016.By comparing these farming systems and refining the methodology used, we believe we will increase the relevance and impact of future agricultural research and development efforts, which provide the foundation for sustained improvements in farming. 

Grant Aims:

The objectives of this project are to:Analyse scientific evidence to establish what differences exist between three different farming systems in terms of the net costs/benefits delivered to society – judged across a wide range of indicators and including environmental, social and health dimensions.Identify areas where additional research and economic data is needed in order to conduct future systemic case study research and before reliable conclusions can be drawn.Refine and improve this methodology for conducting case study research to enable reliable case studies in future, and therefore contribute to an increasingly informative evidence base.Communicate how taking a systemic approach provides a more realistic basis for comparison, and promote understanding and adoption of a ‘best value to society’ approach to academics, businesses, policymakers and citizens/consumers, so that this approach is used to make better decisions.