The high social and environmental costs of food in Kenya detailed in new research

Share this to :

By Rachel Kibui, NATURE+

Special thanks to Dr. Rui Benfica, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI and Dr. Kristin Davis, Senior Research Fellow, Natural Resources and Resilience Unit, IFPRI

The mention of food costs brings to mind the prices consumers pay, along with expenses producers have for seeds, labor, transport, and others. However, the true cost of food extends beyond these visible factors, encompassing deeper, often overlooked costs.

IFPRI’s Research on True Cost of Food in Kenya

In a recent study, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) sought to account for the true cost of food in Kenya, focusing on Kisumu, Kajiado, and Vihiga counties, where the CGIAR Initiative on Nature-Positive Solutions is being implemented. A similar study was conducted in Vietnam.

The research employed the True Cost Accounting (TCA) methodology. TCA is the systematic measurement and valuation of environmental, social, health, and economic costs to inform sustainable choices by governments and food system stakeholders. This method delves deeper into costs that are often ignored yet critically important. Its approach is grounded in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Agri-food Evaluation framework, which accounts for externalities generated in the use of natural, human, and social capital.

For this study, the main focus was on social and environmental costs. Environmental costs include those resulting from climate change, expansion and transformation of land use, soil degradation, and water pollution. Social costs encompass the underpayment of farm workers, child labor (especially where children miss school to engage in farm labor), harassment during the production process, and farmers earning low income due to low productivity, market access, and high costs of production.

Findings from the Study

In Kenya, country level data from the Global Impact Database (GID) indicate that accounting for the entire food systems including crops, livestock, fishing and value addition sectors, social costs account for 73% of the total external costs, while environmental costs account for 27%. Looking at the crops sector alone that figure is 90% (social) and 10% (environmental).

In the three Kenyan counties focused on in this study, external costs (the true price gap) represent about 30% of all production costs. Those external costs are overwhelmingly social – environmental costs account for only 16%, while social costs account for 84%. Surveys were conducted at the farmers’ and workers’ levels, with 1,502 households and 1,056 individuals (farm workers) as the sampling populations, respectively.

“Forced labor is very prominent social cost, along with child labor and underpayment. For example, farm workers have to stay longer in the farms and do things that are not of their will. In some cases, their documents are retained by employers, wage payments are delayed, or they have loans and have therefore to keep working awaiting payment or to compensate for their debts,” says Dr. Rui Benfica, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI.

Dr. Rui Benfica, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI during an interview at a TCA workshop in Nairobi. Credit: Rachel Kibui/NATURE+

According to the study, high social costs are usually rooted in low prices of agricultural commodities, high direct production costs, and high levels of informality in the sector. Low producer prices pressure producers to cut costs, leading to downward pressure on farm workers’ wages (underpayment), reduced profits (resulting in insufficient income), and poor working conditions (forced labor and harassment).

“The significant importance of labor in direct costs and its high levels may further lead farmers to increase the use of family labor in the place of hired workers, which can increase child labor in smallholder farms,” notes Dr. Benfica.

Stakeholders’ Views on the Study

Speaking during a recent workshop in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where the study process and findings were presented, participants hailed IFPRI’s efforts, emphasizing on the need to look at food costing beyond the norm. “Food needs to be considered not as a trading commodity but as a right for everyone,” says Daniel Maingi, Programs Manager, Kenya Food Alliance. “When food is treated as a commodity, it is often forgotten that the cost of producing it is not just the direct cost of the fertilizer and the labor, but there are other costs that are not counted. These are the hidden costs that must then be put on top of the actual cost to get to a true cost accounting for that food.”

Participants at the TCA workshop in Nairobi. Credit: Rachel Kibui, NATURE+

Vihiga County Director of Agriculture, Reuben Chumba, noted that most smallholder farmers have to work thrice, often with the assistance of their children. “Women and children bear the brunt of food-related labor. They have to tend to their farms, go for manual farm work to earn income, and attend to household chores,” says Chumba. Such burdens, coupled with other social and environmental costs, need to be accounted for if the cost of food is to be truly and realistically measured.

Looking at TCA through a gender lens, women and girls should be empowered to produce food sustainably, for example, through the use of inorganic fertilizers, according to Kisumu County Climate Change Officer, Beatrice Okello. “When well empowered, women will be able to take their children to school and cater for other costs at the household level,” notes Okello.

Actions Needed for Increased Productivity, Resilience, and Sustainability

The study highlights the need for actions to enhance farm productivity, resilience, and sustainability. Key recommendations include promoting sustainable agricultural practices and adaptive strategies in collaboration with farmers’ organizations.

To foster sustainable farming and address environmental impacts, contract farming should be encouraged to facilitate technology transfer and input credit schemes for farmers. Publicly funded programs are essential toward providing access to sustainable technologies and markets. Additionally, promoting crop and income diversification among farmers can help them manage risks, their ability to invest in sustainable production, and enhance their overall livelihoods.

Addressing the social impacts on farm workers requires empowering them to advocate for their rights, especially against forced labor, harassment, unfair remuneration, and unsafe working conditions. Strengthening worker associations and unions can offer collective bargaining benefits, enabling fair wages, better working conditions, and other advantages.

Additionally, training farm workers and farmers in labor rights and safety standards and developing local grievance mechanisms within workers’ organizations and communities are important steps.

More broadly, to minimize external costs, specific actions are recommended, such as implementing innovative land-saving technologies to reduce costs and slow the occupation of new lands with high biodiversity value. Sustainable agricultural practices that reduce harmful chemical input use are also vital. Strengthening the role of associations and cooperatives, enforcing minimum wage laws, and ensuring compliance with workers’ rights are necessary regulatory interventions. Also imperative are efforts to reduce child and forced labor.



Share this to :