Food LCA: The Elusive Quest to Go Beyond Carbon

by | Jun 4, 2013

Each time we speak about food product life cycle analysis (LCA), the question of whether or not to use a multi-indicator approach comes up. It’s understandable to hear this question from players in the food industry who are confronted regularly with issues of water use, waste, and cost reduction, although usually not in an LCA context. But we are particularly puzzled by this discussion when it comes from our peers or consultants performing LCA, especially since, for the moment, that lack of science and standardization limits the indicator options (or usage) for LCA. This should close the debate – but it doesn’t.

Indicators such as carbon, water, biodiversity, and eutrophication, are generally thought to be those that the food industry needs to measure and report in order to get the full picture of the environmental impacts of agricultural production. We absolutely agree that a one-indicator approach – whether it is GHG emissions, carbon sequestration, water or any other single indicator – is not a solid long-term solution to understanding and measuring all the impacts of environmental effects of material production, especially in the food industry. And to get to the complete picture, we would love to support a multi-indicator approach to product LCA. There’s only one problem though — these data are not available, measurable or comparable within today’s LCA methodologies.

How much do we really know?

Take this example: If you are a producer of cookies sourcing wheat grown in a monoculture way that typically suppresses biodiversity, uses a disproportionate amount of blue water, and relies on a nitrogen-rich fertilizer that pollutes natural water sources, then shouldn’t someone* know about it? Alternatively, if you’ve come up with an innovative way to improve biodiversity in your fields, or recycle water that can be used multiple times, you’d want someone to know about that too.  (Someone could be the consumer? A regulator? Or even your client?).

But, there is no traceability from the exact field that produced the wheat for your flour used in your apple pies that were sold to your retailer client and which are now sitting at the consumer’s fridge. And even if you knew which field produced your wheat, and if you happened to know that there was a butterfly shortage in that area of England, or Poland, or Australia, how would you report that to be comparable to every other cereal or loaf of bread sitting on the retailer’s shelves? Furthermore, how much time and resources do you want to spend on tracing the few grams of wheat that are used in each cookie? How about it compared to the cocoa butter, or the sugar, or the layer of plastic packaging, or the cardboard box? All of these materials go into your product, and while it would be wonderful to be able to trace every impact of every indicator back to every source, it’s not a realistic expectation with today’s limitations.

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