Why is assessing the impact of agricultural products rather complex?

Making the agri-food sector more sustainable

Making the global food production and consumption system healthier and more sustainable presents a major challenge to governments, businesses and consumers alike. However, it is becoming increasingly urgent. The food system, from production to consumption and waste treatment, contributes (20–30%) to global greenhouse gas emissions and has a big claim on scarce natural resources. The first step in making the agri-food sector more sustainable is a clear and comprehensive assessment of the impact. Accurate and clear information provides the essential basis for this. However, quantifying the impact of the agricultural and/or food products can be rather complex.

How to quantify the impact?

Emissions from cultivation and animal husbandry cannot simply me measured. Therefore these emissions will need to be calculated, based on standards and methodologies for consistency. Various methods exist to assess the impact of products and production systems. One of them is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). An LCA gives the opportunity to capture the whole supply chain of a certain product and the approach reveals all the individual stages of a product or a product system; it describes the whole life cycle of a product. This means all phases in the product's life cycle are analysed, from raw materials, packaging and transport to retail, consumption and waste processing – from cradle-to-grave. An LCA reveals the environmental impacts and where they occur in the supply chain (hotspots). This allows precise actions to be taken to improve processes and products and reduce their environmental impact. This can lead to savings in raw materials and energy use, in turn reducing costs. Furthermore, impacts of different nature can be assessed. For instance, CO2 emissions, land occupation, water consumption and fossil depletion.

Complexity of agricultural LCAs

It is not surprising that worldwide, about 25% of all LCAs are related to the agri-food sector. However, impact assessments of agricultural systems and products can be rather complex. If we for instance zoom in on an LCA of semi-skimmed milk and semi-cured cheese (Broekema & Kramer, 2014) we see that many parameters can influence the outcome of an LCA. Examples are allocation method, impact of land use change and data variation. A different approach concerning these parameters can lead to variation in environmental impact. See results in the table below.

Understanding the complexities, knowing about existing standards and methodologies and good reasoning related to the choices that are to be made when performing an LCA will amount to robust and genuine results. These kinds of results will benefit business, policy or any other goals to be achieved with LCA and on top of that will be beneficial for our earth.

Read more about the LCA of semi-skimmed milk and semi-cured cheese.

Climate Change

Agricultural Land Occupation

Fossil depletion

Range from 0.91 to 1.44 kg CO2eq/kg (1.12 kg CO2eq/kg average) and 6.9 to 11.8 kg CO2eq/kg (8.67 kg CO2eq/kg average) respectively (95% confidence interval).Range from 0.71 to 1.2 m2a/kg (0.91 m2a/kg average) and 4.88 to 8.89 m2a/kg (6.27 m2a/kg average) respectively (95% confidence interval).Range from 0.12 to 0.18 kg oil eq/kg (0.14 kg oil eq/kg average) and 0.68 to 1.13 kg oil eq/kg (0.84 kg oil eq/kg average) respectively (95% confidence interval).

Learn more? Join our webinar series!

Do you want to learn more about agricultural LCAs and how to understand the complexities? Join our new webinar series. Readily from your computer or tablet at home or from your office. In 4 sessions, of approximately 1.5 hours, our LCA experts will take you step by step through the LCA landscape, from theory towards methodological standards and recent developments in the work field. The webinar series also includes an interesting individual assignment, which will help you to gain a deep understanding of the daily practice of LCA.

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Do you want to know how to quantify the impact of your products? Or do you want to join our webinar series?
Send an email to Roline Broekema