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Lauren Baker on the Importance of Transparency in the True Cost of Food

August 27, 2017


One of the hidden mysteries of modern living is the experience of shopping at the local grocery store.  We become complacent right from childhood to expect food will be there for us.  And, we rarely think about the cost of the food item that we place in our shopping cart.  With the advent of an early summer, this morning I went to the store to plan for our evening dinner and found sweet corn had arrived.  So, I bought two ears of corn for my wife and me to enjoy for dinner – the first corn of the season, and the cost was just thirty cents per ear.

On my way home from the store, I got to thinking about that cost, and just how much each of the businesses that “touched” that ear of corn were able to receive from my purchase.  Honestly, I’m not aware of all of the layers of businesses that are involved. And, we’ll be diving more deeply into this subject in future blog posts.

But thinking just quickly, and perhaps naively, there are several businesses involved from farm to table.  Of course, there is the farmer that grew the corn; probably several layers of transportation that brought the corn from the farmer’s field to a warehouse near the farm, and then to another warehouse serving the store and then into the store; and the store itself.  While this is a simplistic view, it does serve those of us who aren’t schooled in economic principles to at least recognize that all of these stops along the way require someone to add to the cost of the food.  And, when food is simply grown closer to home with fewer “way-stations” the consumed cost of food would be reduced.

This article helps to remind us about this chain of distribution, and some of the issues involved in a more sustainable process.


Lauren Baker of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food spoke at the Inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which was held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.

Lauren Baker brings more than 20 years of experience working on food system issues to her role in Strategic Programs and Initiatives with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Her expertise ranges from research on maize agrobiodiversity in Mexico to negotiating and developing municipal food policy and programs. Most recently, Lauren was a Food Policy Specialist with the Toronto Food Policy Council, leading a citizen advisory group embedded within the City of Toronto’s Public Health Division. She has consulted on farm-to-fork initiatives and food policy development across Canada, and in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the Netherlands.

Lauren teaches at the University of Toronto and is a research associate with Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security. She is the author of Corn meets Maize: Food Movements and Markets in Mexico (2013).

Food Tank had a chance to speak with Lauren about her background, current work, and hope for the future of the food system.

Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?

Lauren Baker (LB): I grew up living with my family overseas in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Honduras, and Malaysia, which made me very aware of and sensitive to inequality and sparked my interest in global justice. As a young university student in Canada, I volunteered at a food bank and was shocked by the food insecurity so close to home. Food issues became a way to bridge global issues with local realities while working towards social justice and environmental sustainability. I further explored these interests during my Master’s and PhD programs in Environmental Studies.

I started out my career working on community food programs and eventually co-founded Toronto’s first certified organic urban farm. When I returned to school for my PhD, I sought out innovative food initiatives and focused my research on maize agricultural biodiversity and biotechnology debates in Mexico. Now, working with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, I am able to marry my interest in the global context and theoretical frameworks with local, on-the-ground, practical initiatives to show the many solutions sustainable, secure, and equitable food systems can offer the urgent challenges we face like climate change and hunger.

FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?

LB: Despite the challenges we face, there is an incredible amount of hope and optimism around what can be achieved and how we can affect positive change through transitions to sustainable food systems. There is a growing willingness to work together and across sectors to facilitate change at the speed and scale we need. The movement for food systems reform is energized, taking a holistic, inclusive approach, and genuinely aims to bring voices together in a common narrative to advocate for shifting away from “business as usual”—an approach that quite simply will not cut it anymore. There are alternatives to the current paradigm, and we’re seeing governments, businesses, the media, and public taking up the messages and showing a deep interest in the future of our food systems. This has been really compelling.

FT: Who inspired you as a kid?

LB: In the late 1990s, when working on the urban farm I started in Toronto, I was deeply inspired by community gardeners. From these amazing individuals, often newcomers to my home city, I learned about the links between agricultural diversity, culinary traditions, and cultural diversity. The incredible stories of seeds brought over long distances and journeys, planted in downtown Toronto were incredibly moving. They also taught me how to grow food! One plant became a beautiful symbol for me of Toronto’s cultural diversity. Callaloo is a plant in the amaranth family. Chinese gardeners in Toronto ate the young leaves as greens, Caribbean waited until the plant was more mature to harvest and eat, and others were more interested in the amaranth grains. I also learned how to start seedlings and save seeds. At one point, our urban farm was harvesting sprouts, mushrooms from the basement of our warehouse, lettuces and seedlings from the greenhouse, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers from the rooftop. We also had bee hives. All around us were people with agricultural backgrounds excited to engage in our urban agriculture experiment. This led me to start a project, Seeds of our City, to document the work of these gardeners and their stories. I continue to support urban agriculture projects in Toronto, and am deeply involved with a wonderful project, the Black Creek Community Farm.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

LB: The answer to this is twofold: we need a new narrative for what we want and need our food systems to do for us, and we need frameworks that can show us how we can transition to food systems that are sustainable—renewable, resilient, diverse, equitable, healthy, and interconnected. What we are aiming to do collectively through the Global Alliance is tell the story of what sustainable systems can offer, point to pathways forward, and advocate for change.

Together, Global Alliance members have prioritized the need to make the case for sustainable models for how food systems operate. For example, a true cost accounting framework can show what the real cost food is when positive inputs and negative external costs to the environment, health, and well-being are factored. A project we’re supporting that we see as having the potential to be a real game-changer is TEEBAgriFood. The project aims to show the cost and value of different agricultural systems, across the value chain, and at various scales so that we can see, for example, what a bag of rice costs depending on how it’s produced, processed and distributed, and the positive and negative impacts sustainably grown rice has compared with less sustainable practices. Through this approach, we can see the true cost of intensive, monoculture production, pesticide and antibiotic use, and over-processing foods. The TEEBAgriFood Framework is now being applied to different case studies and the future reports (due to be released in late 2017/early 2018) will show how policy levers and business practices can shift towards more sustainable solutions.

There’s a critical mass of voices growing in the true cost accounting movement and we’ll all need to be singing from the same song sheet if we are going to see change happen at the scale it needs to. In the coming months, we’ll be bringing together a True Cost Accounting Community of Practice so that we can begin to share approaches, methodologies, and messages, and strategically work together to push the agenda for a shift toward more transparent food production and pricing.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?

LB: I recently had the opportunity to meet Bidakanne Sammamma, a farmer from Andhra Pradesh, India. Sammamma works with the Deccan Development Society. The Deccan Development Society works with poor dalit women farmers in the Medak district in Telangana State of India. For more than two decades they have focused on valuing local knowledge, adaptation, training, demonstration projects, and sustainable agriculture to support women to make a dignified living. I heard Sammamma speak on the theme of innovation and was really inspired by her vision and articulation of what innovation is. She described the ways that she and her community are innovating in agriculture by saving, protecting and preserving seeds, teaching younger generations their heritage, and creating markets for neglected crops. She concluded that for her, “Innovation is marching forward to tradition.” Sammamma inspired me on so many levels. First, she has overcome incredible adversity in her life to become a leader and advocate for change. Secondly, the farming systems she cultivates and advocates for are incredibly sustainable and regenerative.

FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?

LB: Making transparent the true cost of food, as I’ve said, has the potential to really shift food systems to more sustainable, secure, and equitable models, and doing so has the potential to address many critical global issues. TEEBAgriFood, as a framework, and in practice, has the potential to offer governments, the private sector, small-scale farmers, and even consumers, a cost-benefit analysis that makes the case for sustainable policies and practices that address climate change, hunger and access to nutritious food. TEEBAgriFood has presented a framework and has been applying it locally and regionally with partners. Case Studies are being released now and over the next few months, with Opportunities and Policy reports due to be released at the end of 2017/winter 2018. Through this work, and by bringing the voices of others working towards true costs accounting together, and breaking down silos between special interest groups, we hope to see systemic shifts happening—and to some degree, we already are as the narratives around sustainability proliferate more broadly.

Our upcoming health externalities and impacts paper that we will co-release with IPES-Food, who the Global Alliance commissioned to do the research, will inform TEEBAgriFood and present a typology of health impacts across the food system. The report will be release in early summer 2017.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

LB: We’ve seen a real shift over the past 10 years or so from a more cynical viewpoint that the impact we can have individually is limited, to people recognizing the incredible strength and connection there is in people making personal, and intentional decisions about what they eat, how they get to work, and where they shop—and the collective impact these individual choices have. Not everyone has the same choices or agency—but where we can, and when we can, we can all do something to push the agenda for change and to build the world we’d like to see—even if it is just staying informed. I’ve seen the incredible impact of people getting involved in community food projects as a way to transform their communities, their connection to food and engage in food politics at the local level.

Some key areas the Global Alliance sees as being imperative for a transition to more sustainable food systems—and things we are asking people to get more engaged on: true cost accounting—a great article explaining why this is relevant and timely can be found in this article from Nature in fall 2016. Agricultural biodiversity and promoting resilient community-based seeds systems is another pressing issue, which is highlighted in our recent compendium report The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience. Another area that many people have been talking about, and that we’ve been developing a shared narrative for, is the need for sustainable animal agriculture and livestock production. We’ve come together with others to produce a statement on animal agriculture and are exploring where we can invest to address this critical issue that contributes to global warming. Our upcoming 2nd International Dialogue is focused on the nexus between food and agriculture systems and climate change, and we’ll be releasing a report on the issue this coming spring.

Article by:  Emily Payne

Originally published in Food Tank

Written by Tracy Edmonds

Written by
Tracy Edmonds

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