True cost accounting of food
What is true cost accounting?
The price of a fast-food burger does not reflect the cost to society, the environment, and human health. True cost accounting (TCA) is an innovative and evolving method for determining the true costs, and benefits, of different types of food production systems. This new way of accounting will help to develop practical policy solutions for agricultural practices, and help move us to a more sustainable food system.
TCA research at the Swette Center
Unveiling the Hidden Capitals of Beef Livestock: A TCA TEEBAgrifood Application
Beef livestock ranching is an important agricultural activity rooted in the history of the American West. Despite the long history and culture surrounding cattle and ranching in the West, recent times have left many cattle ranchers feeling under attack as media attention has highlighted potential environmental impacts of cows and health concerns around red meat. As these generalizations influence consumer perceptions around beef consumption, there is a need to employ a more robust understanding of beef livestock production as a complex socio-ecological system.
The Swette Center and Colorado State University collaborated on a pilot study to assess ranching in Arizona and Colorado using the TCA approach. Our results document the complexity of analyzing ranching in the West and provide monetary estimates that capture key benefits and costs in cattle production.
Milk and Plant-Based Alternatives TCA Research: A Collaboration with Starbucks
The consumption and sales of plant-based alternatives (PBAs) have been growing substantially in the last decades. An important reason for PBAs increasing popularity is that consumers of these products consider them better than dairy milk for both the environment and animal welfare. However, given that their popularity and increased market importance are particularly related to their perceived positive environmental attributes compared to dairy milk, it is surprising that data on their environmental impacts in the scientific literature is limited, heterogeneous, and fragmented. Furthermore, there is very limited data on how PBAs compare to dairy milk in terms of their dependencies and impacts on human and social capitals.
We are collaborating with Starbucks on carrying out a TCA exercise of selected PBAs and dairy milk in order to assess not only the market prices of these beverages, but also the positive and negative externalities that they generate in order to arrive at their “true cost.” Our results will help Starbucks make better and more informed decisions about the mix of beverages that they offer.
Comparing the True Cost of Edible Oils: A Collaboration with Kaiteki
Edible oils are products that are not only important for direct human consumption, but also play a key role in the production of other food products. For example, canola oil is commonly used for the production of plant-based alternatives to dairy milk such as oat milk, or for the production of plant-based meats. However, the production and use of different edible oils generate different levels and types of externalities for the environment, diets, human and social conditions. Furthermore, different edible oils have different nutritional profiles, some healthier than others. Therefore, the choice of oils as ingredients can present important trade-offs between the externalities associated with an oil and its nutritional and health implications.
For this reason, we are collaborating with the Kaiteki Center on a TCA study that compares canola, palm, and coconut oils. Our aim is to provide evidence about the oils that lead to decisions which minimize negative externalities while delivering healthy choices.
Related research priorities
Arizona food systems
Being based in Arizona, it’s only natural that supporting our home state’s food system is a top priority for the Swette Center. Arizona’s food system faces unique challenges due to the state’s arid climate and water scarcity. However, Arizona also presents opportunities for innovative approaches to promote sustainable food production and distribution.
Engaging the private sector
Engaging businesses, including food companies, retailers, agricultural technology providers and investors, in food systems brings valuable expertise and innovation capabilities that are essential for driving sustainable change. Collaborative partnerships between governments, civil society and the private sector can leverage the strengths of each sector to build resilient and inclusive food systems.
Empowering Indigenous foodways
Indigenous foodways hold immense importance as they represent the culmination of centuries of wisdom, culture and sustainable practices. They are the embodiment of indigenous communities’ deep connection to their lands, traditional knowledge and ancestral heritage. By preserving and revitalizing indigenous foodways, we aim to honor and celebrate the cultural diversity and resilience of indigenous peoples.