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Food Systems are complex and dynamic systems made up of networks of decision-makers, natural processes and human activities. They span all processes and activities involved in food production, processing, packaging, storage, distribution, consumption, and food loss and waste. They can vary substantially and depend on location specific conditions. The interconnected nature of food systems means that decisions made in part of the system will have repercussions for decision-makers and processes in other parts of the system and lead to feedbacks.

Studies exploring options for reducing food systems environmental impacts call for integrated and coordinated action for global targets, such as climate and biodiversity targets, as food systems transcend disciplinary, sectoral and institutional boundaries. The UN FAO describe a sustainable food systems as “a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”. Transformations are needed at different scales to deliver sustainable food systems, requiring knowledge at multiple levels, new technologies and behaviour change.

Data, metrics, and models can identify food systems’ uncertainties and play a role in: 

  • Assessing what is achievable to help set environmental targets. 
  • Monitoring progress towards targets and assessing the effectiveness of strategies via reporting.  
  • Benchmarking and fairness, which relies on transparent reporting, collecting and analysis of data as well as transparency about methods. 
  • Communicating progress to policymakers, industry, and the public

However, a lack of standardised metrics and methods for verifying environmental sustainability claims can reduce their credibility. The Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP) is working collaboratively across government, industry, food system experts and civil society to develop consistent and defined metrics to objectively measure environmental sustainability. Commentators have highlighted the need for globally interoperable standardised methods that include differentiating the method-of-production.

Key Messages

  • Food systems are built from the complex activities, interactions and networks of decision-makers, natural processes, human processes and infrastructure. They span all processes and activities involved in food production, processing, packaging, storage, distribution, consumption, and food loss and waste.  
  • These systems generate economic and nutrition benefits and interact with the environment in multiple ways.  
  • Achieving international and domestic climate change and environmental targets will require transformative change of global and UK food systems. 
  • Studies exploring options for reducing environmental impacts suggest that an integrated and coordinated systems approach is needed. This will require sound data, metrics and models to track progress towards transforming food systems. 
  • Metrics on environmental impacts of food across the whole supply chain could incentivise producers and retailers to improve product environmental sustainability. However, there are significant data collection challenges, as well as metric, method and modelling limitations. 
  • The UK Government’s Food Data Transparency Partnership will develop a mandatory methodology for food labels and sustainability claims. A public consultation is planned. 


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:   

Members of the POST Board* 

Professor Rosemary Collier, University of Warwick 

Dr Ioannis Koliousis, Cranfield University* 

Henrietta Appleton, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust* 

Dr Alastair Leake, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust* 

Professor Tom Oliver, University of Reading  

Dr Anant Jani, University of Oxford/Heidelberg* 

Professor Diana Feliciano, Teesside University* 

Richard Young, Sustainable Food Trust* 

Robert Barbour, Sustainable Food Trust* 

Fabia Bromovsky, Global Farm Metric 

Dr John Ingram, University of Oxford* 

Professor Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University*  

Dr Monika Zurek, University of Oxford 

Dr Joseph Poore, University of Oxford 

Dr Abbie Chapman, University College London* 

Dr Elizabeth Boakes, University College London* 

Dr Carole Dalin, University College London* 

Joe Duncan-Duggal, Foodsteps 

Professor Timothy Lang, OmniAction* 

Lise Colyer, OmniAction* 

Professor Sarah Bridle, University of York 

Dr Robert Lilywhite, University of Warwick 

Dr Nicole Kennard, University of Sheffield* 

Jordi Buckley Paules, Imperial College London* 

Cliona Howie, Foundation Earth 

Dr Joe Roberts, Harper Adams University 

Catherine Chong, The Consortium for Labelling for the Environment, Animal welfare and Regenerative farming (CLEAR)* 

Fidelity Weston, CLEAR* 

Amy Fry, National Farmers’ Union* 

Ceris Jones, National Farmers’ Union* 

Professor Robin May, Food Standards Agency* 

James Elliott, Green Alliance* 

Michael Cummins, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 

Christopher Hopley, National Measurement Laboratory* 

Dr Heidi Goenaga-Infante, National Measurement Laboratory* 

Paul Hancock, National Measurement Laboratory* 

Karin Goodburn, Institute of Food Science and Technology* 

Stephen French, Institute of Food Science and Technology* 

Wayne Martindale, Institute of Food Science and Technology* 

Hamish Forbes, Waste and Resources Action Programme* 

Joanna Trewern, WWF 

Dr Ximena Schmidt, Brunel University London* 

* Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of this briefing

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