Why Food Sustainability LCAs Make Up a Full 25% of All Published LCAs

Food sustainability is perhaps one of the most crucial areas for the LCA industry and for consumers. This is the first in a serie of articles that will be highlighting important questions and developments in the field of agricultural LCA. First up: why is agriculture-related LCA such a huge topic?


The methodology of life cycle assessment (LCA) has its roots in food-related sustainability questions. The first LCAs, then called Resource and Environmental Profile Analyses, were done in the 1970s and concentrated on things like food packaging. Soon, it became clear that the packaging of food wasn’t the main food-related environmental impact. In the 1990s, pioneering LCAs started studying the much larger environmental impacts of growing and producing food products. At this point, LCA experts were using software written especially for that company and that study.


Agriculture-related LCAs Keep Evolving

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 related . The proportion of agriculture-related publications was low at first, because most publications in the early years of the journal discussed advances in methodology, such as impact assessments, weighting methods, normalisation, LCA networks, and ISO standards. The proportion of agriculture-related LCAs doubled in 2007 and has remained around 26% since then. Some reasons for this large increase are:


  • Growing realization that the large variability in production systems and the uses of specific agricultural products (food versus fuel) means more LCAs are needed.
  • Public interest in the first edition of the FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in 2006.
  • The introduction of the 2008 US farm bill and European biofuel legislation in 2009. While food and fuel are different products, both are agricultural in nature. Discussions around the specific and complex methodological challenges arising from these legislation changes spurred demand for agricultural LCAs worldwide.
  • Pressure from retailers to provide carbon footprint information on food products since around 2008. This coincides with the increased interest into food security that also increased the need to assess supply chains.


Figure 2: Share of agriculture-related LCAs in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment


Methodologies For Agricultural LCAs Keep Improving

Continuous development of LCA methodologies has also fuels the increasing proportion of agricultural LCAs, as methods become more accurate. Wegener Sleeswijk et al (1996), in the Netherlands, published the first ever set of guidelines on methodological topics for LCAs of agricultural products. 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).




While the need for solid databases related to food and agriculture is obvious and increasing, the current situation is that the data on food is scattered over various databases.

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