History of agricultural LCAs

A little bit of history

The early years of agricultural LCAs

In the 1970s and 1980s, most LCAs1 concentrated on food packaging (e.g. beverage containers, milk packaging, one-way versus returnable). The first agricultural LCAs were performed in the early 1990s2.

Pioneering food LCA case studies include the following:

  • Tomatoes, by Gysi and Reist (1990)
  • Ice cream, by Bolliger and Zumbrunn (1991)
  • Margarines, by Unilever (Vis, Krozer, van Duyse & Koudijs, 1992)

The LCA of margarines (see Figure 1) was based on the first internal LCA study by Unilever in 1990. The system boundaries of this LCA are from the cultivation of oil crops to final product packaging (including crushing and oil refining). Software written specially for Unilever was used to conduct this LCA.

Evolution of agriculture-related LCAs

Figure 2 shows the outcome of a review of all the papers published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment (JLCA) to identify the proportion of LCAs devoted to agriculture-related issues. Of the 1701 papers, 255 were agriculture related3. Most publications in the early years of the journal were methodologically based (e.g. impact assessments, weighting methods, normalisation, LCA networks, ISO standards). The proportion of agriculture-related LCAs doubled in 2007 and has remained around 26% since then.

Some reasons for this large share are:
  • Large variability in production systems and the uses of specific agricultural products (food versus fuel)
  • Public interest in the first edition of the FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow
  • Specific (complex) methodological challenges
  • Pressure from retailers to provide carbon footprint information on food products since around 2008
  • Introduction of European biofuel legislation in 2009

Specific methodologies for agricultural LCAs

Wegener Sleeswijk et al (1996) published the first set of guidelines on methodological topics for LCAs of agricultural products in the Netherlands. As the same need for agricultural specifications was also felt in other European countries, a number of European research institutes took concerted action to draw up a harmonised approach for use by European agricultural LCA practitioners (Audsley & Alber, 1997).

The latest development is the publication by the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Roundtable of the Environmental Assessment of Food and Drink Protocol (ENVIFOOD) (Food SCP, 2012). This protocol is the basis for the coming food, feed and beverage pilots of the European Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) programme.

In 2014, specific LCA guidelines for livestock production systems will be published by the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance Partnership (LEAP, coordinated by FAO).

Some methodological challenges still remaining are:

  • Developing methods to measure and assess some environmental impacts that are specifically important for agriculture (for example, soil erosion and soil degradation, water depletion, biodiversity loss due to land use and land use change or depletion of fish stocks)
  • The limited data availability for modelling toxicity impacts
  • Allocation of animal manure between animal and plant production systems


Audsley, E., & Alber, S. (1997). Harmonisation of environmental life cycle assessment for agriculture. European Comm., DG VI Agriculture.

Bolliger, A., & Zumbrunn, J. (1991). Methode einer ökologischen Grobanalyse am Beispiel Vanillecornet-Herstellung und Verteilung. Zurich, Switzerland.

Food SCP. (2012). ENVIFOOD Protocol Environmental Assessment of Food and Drink Protocol. Draft Version 0.1 (pp. 1–50).

Gysi, C., & Reist, A. (1990). Hors-sol Kulturen - eine ökologische Bilanz.

Hunt, R. G., & Franklin, W. E. (1996). LCA History L C A - How it Came About - Personal Reflections on the Origin and the Development of. Int. J. LCA.

Vis, J. C., Krozer, J., van Duyse, P. J. C., & Koudijs, H. G. (1992). Milieumatenstudie van margarines (p. 56). Rotterdam.

Wegener Sleeswijk, A., Kleijn, R., Van Zeijts, H., Reus, J., Meeusen - van Onna, M., Leneman, H., & Sengers, H. (1996). Application of LCA to agricultural products.
Leiden: CML.

1. Until 1990 LCAs were called Resource and Environmental Profile Analyses.

2. It is not possible to make a comprehensive review of LCAs because most have not been published, as mentioned by Hunt and Franklin (1996).

3. LCAs that mainly address crop cultivation, biobased products, compound feed and its additives, food products, and land use change methodology.