Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

  • 5 December 2017

The true cost of food: industry, academia and civil society meet to discuss the valuation of environmental, social and health impacts from food systems

Burger, Photo: Flickr Marcia O'Connor CC-by-2.0

Earlier this year, the Environmental Change Institute’s (ECI’s) food research group held the First Oxford Meeting on Food System Impact Valuation. The Meeting, on the 11 and 12 of April 2017, brought together representatives from some of the world’s largest food companies, civil society, and academia, to discuss standardised and pre-competitive measurement and monetary valuation of environmental, social and health impacts from food systems.

Measurement and monetised valuation of impacts is an emerging method for companies, investors, regulators and consumers to account for and compare positive and negative impacts of the food sector on society's shared natural and social capital. Valuation gives society the opportunity to publically or privately regulate companies and food products in proportion to their net damage. Companies and investors use it to manage portfolio, litigation and reputational risks.


Achim Steiner (then Director of the Oxford Martin School and now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme) opened the two-day meeting with a talk on the global impacts of the global food system, and highlighted the need to introduce fiscal mechanisms to recover externalised costs from actors in proportion to the damage they were causing. Agricultural has received the most attention recently for its role in carbon emissions, particularly meat and dairy products. However, environmental and social impacts occur throughout the whole food system from transportation, storage, manufacturing, processing, and waste, and the mal-consumption of food products is responsible for rising health cost burdens on society through diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Valuation of food impact, is however, more difficult than putting a price on carbon. The Meeting discussed its challenges, including technology and data limitations. Food products embed ingredients, sometimes thousands of them, sourced globally each with varying energy, water and land impacts from their production. The energy, water and transport use by individual manufacturers within the same category of products differ. Accounting at the resolution of food products will require secure and traceable geospatial and temporally specific environmental and social data from farming, processing and manufacturing passed down the food chain. It was noted that the same technology that could achieve this, offers many business opportunities when integrated with food safety tracking and next generation labelling, health and product information for consumers.

After the April meeting, the ECI’s food research group, the Environmental Law Program at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law, and UC Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute, convened an interim steering group for a Food System Impact Valuation Initiative (FSIVI) with Arla Foods, Danone, Nestle, and World Wide Fund for Nature. Born out of the Meeting, FSIVI seeks to:

  • Improve current impact valuation methodologies and operationalise the National and Social Capital Protocols for food systems, and develop new methods for the valuation of health impacts. Promote the development of standardised and comparable data, and convergence of current methods towards a common agreed approach.
  • Promote the inclusion of environmental, health and social data in emerging food information and technology systems, and undertake research in the longer term on the utilisation of such systems for impact valuation.
  • Initiate and promote uses of impact valuation for food system governance, regulation, public procurement, research and consumer labelling through a wide and diverse network.

The three purposes of FSIVI will be furthered at The Second Oxford Meeting on Food System Impact Valuation in Oxford from 27-28 March 2018. For more information on the FSIVI initiative and the Second Oxford Meeting, email the ECI food systems research group through roger.sykes@eci.ox.ac.uk

"Valuation gives society the opportunity to publically or privately regulate companies and food products in proportion to their net damage"


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