Developments in LCA in the food industry

Food and its consumption have a significant impact on our environment. It is estimated that a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is linked to agriculture and food production. The insights gathered via robust LCA studies can really help consumers, governments and industry to abate the environmental impacts and take more informed decisions. But consistency in data and methods is a must. In this piece, I’d like to share a short overview of the latest developments towards alignment in LCA food data and extend an invitation to meet the SimaPro team at the LCA Food conference.

In the LCA food and agriculture sector, the urge for reliable, transparent methodologies and data is perhaps bigger than elsewhere. As we know, this sector is very impactful for the environment. Luckily, there is some good news here: the PEF initiative made important advancements for the EU regarding methodological guidelines and several other organizations have been working in the expansion and improvement of databases and sources.

Developments in the PEF Initiative for LCA Food Data and Methods

The PEF initiative of the European Commission has the goal of creating a general product environmental footprinting (PEF) method and the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCRs) per specific product category. The main objective is to provide guidelines, general requirements, and best practices for LCA development. The PEFCRs will allow LCA practitioners to communicate scientifically reliable, consistent, understandable, and environmental information that is not misleading. Because understanding the impacts of food production and consumption is crucial for the food industry and consumers, 11 of the 26 pilots in the PEF initiative are related to this field.

These pilots are:

  • Beer, proposed by Brewers of Europe
  • Coffee, proposed by the European Coffee Federation
  • Dairy, proposed by the European Dairy Association
  • Feed for food-producing animals, proposed by the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation
  • Fish for human consumption, proposed by the Norwegian Seafood Federation
  • Meat (cows, pigs and sheep), proposed by the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union
  • Pasta, proposed by the Union of Organisations of Manufacturers of Pasta Products in the EU
  • Packed water, proposed by the European Federation of Bottled Waters
  • Pet food (for cats and dogs), proposed by the European Pet Food Industry Federation
  • Olive oil, coordinated by CO2 Consulting S.L.
  • Wine, proposed by the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins

These pilots, established in 2014, aim to develop the PEFCRs for the food sector in the EU. LCA experts, food producers, and industry members have been working together in each pilot. They are setting common definitions, specifying LCA data quality and data collection requirements, working towards an agreement regarding the best practices when performing food LCAs, and solving methodological questions.  Each group has written the first draft of the PEFCRs at the product level. This includes all the rules of the game, all assumptions, and a description of how to perform food LCA studies.

Later this year, the PEF pilots will start to be remodeled. This means re-visiting the PEFCRs, identifying improvements at the data or method level, and continuing the discussion on how the rules of the game should be applied and modified for each category group. All the screening studies performed in the first phase will be remodeled using updated and compliant data. The pilots will also test that all the rules, assumptions, and calculation methods were applied correctly. Since textual guidelines could be interpreted in many ways, the Commission will also make the resulting models available to users who wish to apply the PEFCRs on their own products; these models can be adapted to suit the users profile or integrated into other studies if this model is used in the life cycle of another product.

Data Sources for Food and Agricultural Processes

Several other organizations have been taking steps towards improving and expanding the availability of LCA data for agricultural and food products. For example, in 2012, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN launched the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance initiative (LEAP), with the main objective ‘to develop comprehensive guidance and methodology for understanding the environmental performance of livestock supply chains‘. LEAP has published several guidelines on how to model livestock products and has a database about the 5 main global feed crops (maize, wheat, barley, soybean, and cassava). A similar organization is the Global Feed LCA Institute (GFLI), a partnership between IFIF, AFIA, and FEFAC. the GFLI is developing a high-quality, globally recognized, and harmonized public LCA database for livestock products compliant with the LEAP methodological guidelines.

The Global food system is influenced by many factors. This image shows how complex and challenging is to model it.

Another initiative doing good work in this field is the World Food LCI database, an initiative started by the Swiss Confederation, Agroscope, and Quantis. This database includes 900 primary agricultural products and processed food products at the global level.  Like the other initiatives, the goal is to provide well-documented, transparent, and reliable data to do accurate LCAs or environmental product declarations (EPDs) in the food sector.

A similar database is the Agri-Footprint database, including approximately 3,500 products and processes covering data on feed, food, and biomass with 3 allocation options (mass, energy, and economic) and from multiple regions. The Agrifootprint database includes extensive water use data and can be used as a basis for creating more complex processes, as it includes a wide variety of food building blocks. This LCA food database is available in SimaPro.

Contracts for Data Availability

Without EF-compliant life cycle inventory data, it is not possible to do a PEF study. For this reason, the European Commission is offering a number of contracts with the goal to generate Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) datasets.  According to the European Commission, the users of these datasets should be allowed to:

use, reproduce and adapt the datasets for all media and using all channels, methods, and processes, whether known or unknown on the date hereof, including for derivative use as part of the datasets to be used in the 26 PEFCRs/OEFSRs developed during the environmental footprint pilot phase, or in the context of a contract with the European Commission.”

For the food industry, two relevant calls for tenders were already published: one for feed (1518 datasets) and one for food and agriculture (268 datasets) products.

Great Benefits of More Food LCA Databases

Overall, the benefits of having a broad set of product or process data sources and guidelines in the food sector are manifold. For LCA practitioners and industry members, it means a consistent and easier execution of food LCAs, environmental studies that are aligned with recognized standards. Companies can use them to better understand the performance of their daily operations and businesses, identify environmental hotspots and proactively mitigate impacts by changing the resources or processes they depend on (Callieri C, 2008). Consumers, too, will benefit:  they will get more transparent and consistent data which can help them compare options and make more informed decisions.

Get in Touch at LCA Food

If you want to learn how you can start implementing the PEFCRs in your products, how to access data for the food or agricultural sector or you simply got have some comments and questions I’d like to invite you to register for the LCA Food Conference and meet the SimaPro team, where we will be also collaborating with the Agrifootprint developers. If you want to attend, please contact me.

Elsa Valencia

LCA Data Expert

I believe we all have expertise that we can use to do something to improve our relationship with the world, and that we need to use scientific methods and tools that objectively guide us when making decisions. Sustainability and sustainability metrics have been the main topic of my career. I enjoy helping clients from different backgrounds and regions to understand how they can tackle today’s challenges with integrated tools that go beyond only technical solutions.

Stay up to date with our newsletter

Newsletter Registration



Newsletters *
Conditions *