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Business of Food

Mapping the food system: the race to revolutionise the sector using data

Man eating yogurt
8 min read
AUTHOR: Gavin Wren
Union Jack made of data

A race is happening behind the scenes of our food system, involving some of the most respected and powerful organisations in the world. Google, Oxford University, the WWF, and no less than three Government departments are jointly working on it, yet there’s barely a peep in the press. It could revolutionise the way that food is managed around the world, but unlike the race for cell-based meat or agricultural robotics, there are no physical products coming to market. This is the race towards structure, accountability and transparency in food system data.

The world of food is a complicated place. Academics will gladly tell you the global food supply is a ‘complex adaptive system’ that constantly changes. Academics love complexity – it keeps them in a job. Making sense of complexity is also a highly valued commodity. Apple became one of the richest companies on earth by taking complexity (electronics and code) and simplifying it for the user (iPhone). Making sense of the food system, through data, stands to shake up the way businesses and governments organise our food supply.

Using data to map the global food system

Data on its own is quite meaningless, referring simply to a body of collected information, such as words or numbers. Value is then created in three ways: firstly, through the scale and quality of the data, because data that is incomplete, scarce, or low quality won’t tell us much. Secondly, through the organisation, structure and management of data, including the alignment of standards and metrics to create a level playing field. Lastly, the application of data and data products – can it be easily accessed and manipulated to solve our problems?

Collecting data about the food system is like mapping needles in haystacks, when there are haystacks in every field, in every country in the world. Without organised data, agreed metrics and standardisation, we are comparing apples with oranges – quite literally in some cases. By creating order amongst this complexity and applying the data in real-world use-cases, we open massive opportunities for progress and efficiency in our food supply.

Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP)

Back in June 2022, the Government released their Food Strategy white paper, which was a somewhat anticlimactic response to Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations. Defra had stripped the meat from the bone, especially when it came to health and food security, leaving only a few items of note, one of which was the Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP).
“… We will consult on implementing mandatory public reporting against a set of health metrics and explore a similar approach to sustainability and animal welfare. We will also provide consumers with the information they need to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food. The partnership will ensure we have a robust framework for tackling some of the fundamental questions for our food system, raising transparency and responsibility.”

Information about the FDTP has been patchy, with barely a peep from the Government since the minor fanfare on its announcement. Meanwhile, organisations around the world are rapidly building their own data initiatives. So, what do we know about the FDTP?
Well, we know it’s definitely happening. The initiative is being run between the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department of Health and Social Care and FSA, to be headed by GS1 Chairperson Chris Tyas OBE and David Kennedy, Director General of Defra. A Design Partnership Group (DPG) will test ideas and proposals submitted by four focus areas of health, environment, animal welfare and data. GS1 UK CEO, Anne Godfrey, has been chosen to co-chair the data and technical working group alongside Julie Pierce, Director of Openness, Data and Digital at FSA.

Aggregating food data

Making sense of the proliferation of data about food is the aim of the project. There are currently more than 400 voluntary sustainability standards around the world, all setting slightly different standards and vying for their place on company websites and product packaging. There are also huge open-source databases such as Open Food Facts, where consumers can submit data about food and drink products, or the UN’s FAOSTAT for large scale global and food agricultural data.

That’s just scratching the surface. Once we go behind the scenes, we find a plethora of data initiatives in food:

  • Oxford University with support from Login5 and WWF have created HESTIA, a standardised, open source repository of agricultural data.
  • OmniAction is bringing together actors across all sectors in food to set a north star for data metrics in the food system.
  • Foundation Earth is applying food systems data to create eco-labelling.
  • GAIN, John Hopkins University and UN FAO have released the Food Systems Dashboard, a free-to-access database of global food systems data.
  • WWF and Tesco have been developing data metrics to measure the impact of the average shopping basket.
  • The Sustainable Food Trust have been developing the Global Farm Metric to understand the impact of farming systems around the world.
  • Google were part of a consortium proposing a Food Systems Cornucopia at the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Not to mention organisations working on linked sustainability standards such as World Benchmarking Alliance, and sector-specific, production-oriented organisations, like Roundtables on Sustainable Palm Oil and Responsible Soy. The policy implications of these processes are addressed in the Food Foundation’s Plating up Progress report.

However, these initiatives are currently speaking different languages. We need a framework that brings together data and enables the measurement of that data across various metrics (e.g. sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition, labour rights etc), for all food types, to allow produce to be judged on a level playing field. Initiatives like the FDTP aren’t about setting new standards, they’re about making sure that all of our data speaks the same language.

Almost every major actor in the food system is on board with the movement. The top dogs at World Economic Forum, Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab and Brian Moynihan, Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, noted in a recent report on Sustainable Value Creation that one of our foremost challenges is “the lack of consistency by which companies measure and report to investors and other stakeholders the shared and sustainable value they create.”

At the heart of these initiatives is the desire to supply transparent and accessible data that creates a level playing field for everyone, whether it’s a business, an academic, a charity, or a consumer standing in a supermarket, trying to make the right food choice decisions. Lise Colyer, Founder of OmniAction says: “Put simply, across the food system sustainability data is missing. Literally. This puts trillions of investment dollars at risk. It prevents consumers from their human right under the Aarhus Convention to participate in environmental justice – because they have no credible data or information to work with.”

One of the most common arguments about current climate data is ‘it’s not the cow, it’s the how’, referring to the varying environmental impacts attributed to intensive and extensive beef production. We know that beef is the food with the largest contribution to climate change, however, we don’t have easy access to the data that allows us to compare beef from different production systems. These data initiatives aim to facilitate that judgement, to compare apples with apples, rather than with oranges – quite literally. Standardised data metrics could allow consumers to reliably access data that helps them choose between an apple grown in New Zealand and one from Suffolk.

How data can help consumers and the food sector

The most obvious outlet for this data is product labelling that covers all elements of sustainability. Lise Colyer says that OmniAction would “allow consumers to make informed choices about the genuine trade-offs to be expected when making sustainability choices, across environment, nutrition, land sovereignty, labour rights and health impacts.”

There’s also the opportunity to integrate into food service. Chet Coenen worked as a chef in fine dining and recognised that any new reporting requirements for small businesses would be onerous. At the same time, the alignment of metrics provides a new way of ranking or scoring business based on the sustainability of the food they are sourcing. This is especially true if the rating system comes from a third party, “Restaurants could use it for themselves, or partner with people like OmniAction to determine or validate own sustainability credentials,” says Coenen. “In the same way that food safety ratings are currently displayed, a system like Scores on the Doors of 1 to 5 stars.

The FDTP and related initiatives will empower consumers to make better choices in supermarkets and restaurants, and support businesses in their environmental, social and corporate governance or sustainable investment activities.

Lise Colyer adds: “Policy makers can understand the true taxpayer burden of sustainable vs non-sustainable food products and direct subsidies and other interventions toward supporting production and consumption of the less expensive sustainable choices. COP15 finance commitments can be met – financial flows can be re-directed on the basis of credible data to support truly sustainable investments.

At first, this might sound like a high-level ‘big data’ takeover of the food system, but that’s not the case. Many of these initiatives are simply aiming to set the rules of the game for all of the people who currently hold data, to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.

Ultimately, an organisation like the FSA, who currently lead government work on food safety with innovative techniques including AI and machine learning, can provide the centralised skills and structure to make this data race a success. As a non-ministerial department, they help advise other divisions responsible for legislation, which if it did happen based on a solid foundation, would mitigate the risks of being a first mover for businesses and compel everyone to take meaningful action on sustainability.


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