Blockchain: Measuring impacts in the worldwide food system


By Dr Phil Godsiff

In which Our Man in Europe stays home, but goes global.

Notwithstanding essential nourishment, the pleasure of “commensality”, and chocolate for Easter eggs, recent estimates show that globally we waste 30% of food produced, and in the developed West that figure is even higher.  Further, we know that food consumed or produced unwisely is causing significant health costs in terms of diabetes and heart disease.  Yet dietary improvements in the West — for example switching to palm oil — lead to deforestation of all descriptions around the globe, which contributes to climate change, which impacts on us all.  Food manufacturing techniques may also be having indirect health impacts through the spread of antimicrobial resistance from animals to humans.

There is no longer much doubt that our food system has significant negative impact, as well as allowing us to keep body and soul together (luckily, there is also positive impact: recent research at Surrey has contributed to the identification and removal of pharmaceuticals in water supplies).  And the food system is confounded through interactions with other systems; for example, two types of agriculture (arable and pastoral) compete with us for such basics as land and water. Less well known are some of the efforts being made for a fuller understanding of the situation and how to address it.

The Oxford Meeting on Impact Valuation and the Food System held recently at the University of Oxford discussed how these impacts, both good and bad, could be measured and reported on a systemic basis in order to raise awareness and influence global behaviours.  This follows on from work extending the activities reported in Corporate Social Responsibility to impact of organisations and corporations on natural and social capital.    The group –described by one participant as unique in this space in both its make-up and objectives – discussing the way forward convened academics from Oxford, UC Dublin, Turin, Exeter, Bath, UCDavis and Elisabeth Haub School of Law; NGOs such as Oxfam and WWF; manufacturers large (Nestle, Cadbury, Pepsico, Danone) and small; retailers such as Sainsbury; regulators; and food and impact consultants.  As a result of my in-depth piece on DLT and the food chain in ‘The Conversation’  I was invited to join an expert panel discussing how technology  (in my case, blockchain) could be a significant solution, used as part of the measurement analysis and reporting process, and potentially as a method of harmful impact reduction.

The wider discussions over the two exhausting days reminded me of my long-ago past in commercial product and process costing and profitability, and my near past in systems thinking.  Impact on a global scale is truly a wicked problem, to which informed discourse is always part of the solution.  This discourse needs to be global and consider the viewpoint of all stakeholders as well as the boundaries that they are explicitly or implicitly applying to the “system,” and be supported by an explicit and agreed methodology.

This meeting was a start along this long and rocky road towards less harm and more good. Keep an eye on our blog page for regular updates and staging posts on the journey.

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.