Food LCA: The Elusive Quest to Go Beyond Carbon
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.
The weight of water
Even something that seems simple like water (which, to be fair, is getting a little closer to being an indicator that can be measured and compared across a variety of production methods) is currently too subjective to be meaningful. Not so long ago I listened to a presentation by a multi-national breakfast cereal producer who proudly announced that their year-long research had been able to calculate that each bowl of cereal accounted for an average of 16 liters of water use. This declaration was received in the room of sustainability experts with “Okays” and “Huhs?”, and even the presenter sort of shrugged his shoulders and said that they weren’t really sure how useful this information was to the sustainability of the business or even as a benchmark.
Would growing the wheat for the breakfast cereal, cookies, or apple pie crust, on higher ground result in less or more water use? What about when Eastern Europe experiences a drought while Northern Europe experience floods, would this change anything in particular about a business’ daily operations or buying practices? Moreover, if you are a producer in Israel who needs to irrigate more than a producer in France, should you be punished simply because there is less rain? If you use water from dams, should that be considered having the same impact as water from rivers or rainwater? Should water use in regions where there is no water scarcity be considered water consumption at all given that there are no impacts to report? These questions are debated daily in classrooms and conferences rooms around the world, but are clearly not quantifiable data that can be gathered and analyzed in a product LCA today.
Trusting what carbon can measure
There is a feeling that relying on carbon alone as an environmental indicator seems lacking somehow. It feels like other important impacts are being ignored. There is a suspicion that the data is being skewed one way when other directions might be more revealing. The problem, however, is a practical one. We know that an 18-wheeler in Germany emits roughly the same carbon as an 18-wheeler in Argentina. Emissions-based indicators such as carbon are the most available and the most reliable of all the indicators for use in a lifecycle analysis for food production, especially when compared to biophysical indicators such as water, soil quality, and biodiversity that require regional precision. If we use current LCA methodologies to calculate these highly regionalized indicators, we know we can get results, but there is no guarantee that they would be clear, insightful or meaningful, although we can be sure that they would be expensive.
The overall problem with the quest for a multi-indicator approach is two-fold: 1) The data for biophysical indicators are not widely available or reliable enough to measure the impacts of food production; and 2) The food industry’s sustainability maturity is such that the inundation of potentially conflicting information could cause more harm than good. Carbon is simple enough, complete enough, and available enough to provide the necessary intelligence for businesses to make smart decisions about how to reduce the lifecycle impacts of the products they are making.
Like many of my peers, I hope that this is not the case forever. I hope that biodiversity and soil quality and water consumption can be normalized and scaled to a point where the results are useful and comparable. And we’ll be one of the first to expand to other environmental indicators when the methodologies for LCA and the data are consistent and broad enough to be useful to businesses. But until then, we’ll stick with carbon emissions to support businesses in making intelligent, informed sustainability-driven business decisions.
Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry, featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting and reporting, product portfolio assessments, product carbon footprinting, and lifecycle analysis. Carbonostics received a 4.5 star rating in the 2013 Environmental Leader Technology Review. For more on Carbonostics “best-in-class” technology, visit: www.carbonostics.com.
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