Building a global platform for managing food’s environmental impacts

Joseph Poore

The way we produce and consume food has a huge bearing on biodiversity loss, deforestation, climate change, water scarcity, and water pollution. However, we have very limited information on the sustainability of different food producers or production practices across the indicators that we should be tracking. Specifically:

  • most farmers don’t know their own environmental impacts or how to reduce them;
  • most food processors and retailers don’t know the environmental impacts of the food they source or their own impacts;
  • consumers have virtually no information about the sustainability of foods (or more importantly, no food products come with a ‘red’ or unsustainable label);
  • policymakers have limited information to regulate against harm or incentivise sustainability.

This is – we hope – a relatively solvable problem (at least compared to many others in sustainability). Addressing it would have major and potentially transformative impacts on the world food system.

Over the next two years at Oxford, we are building a new platform – HESTIA – Harmonized Environmental Storage and Tracking of the Impacts of Agriculture. This will be an open-source platform that captures environmental impact data in a harmonized and standardised way. The platform will enable researchers and producers from across the food supply-chain to upload and store sustainability assessment data and deliver this data back to a range of users to inform interventions that reduce their environmental impacts and enhance their productivity.

Here is an example use case. A wheat farmer uses a digital farm monitoring tool to track her productivity. She sprays MCPA (a herbicide to control weeds) and cypermethrin (a contact insecticide) in the grain stores. The farm monitoring tool connects to HESTIA to support a multi-environmental indicator assessment. HESTIA data supports benchmarking, showing her grain ranks badly on ecotoxicity. She adopts ‘integrated pest management’ techniques, re-calculates her ecotoxicity, and ranks in the top 10% of wheat farmers in the UK. She uploads an assessment to HESTIA, allowing her to communicate her results to intermediaries and processors, access new markets for her products, and receive new subsidies that are tied to actual environmental outcomes.

Information in itself isn’t the answer, but without it, the fundamentals of creating a sustainable food system are missing. Please follow our project via the Oxford Martin School website (