The Importance of Product-level Assessments in Sustainable Food Production

Learn about Carbon Maps' approach to conducting product-level Life Cycle Assessments on food products.
Nov 15, 2023

Fostering sustainability in our global food production system is an overarching challenge that calls for the collective attention of governments, businesses, and consumers. Its urgency is amplified by its significant contribution of about a third of global GHG emissions and the strain it places on our precious natural resources.

We strongly believe that a crucial step in effectively addressing this ever-growing challenge is the rigorous calculation and measurement of the impact of food. Only by understanding the magnitude of your food’s impact at each stage of its value chain can you begin to formulate appropriate climate strategies and undertake reduction efforts. However, it is also important to underscore that measuring the environmental impact of food is not simple nor straightforward. It is a complex undertaking, primarily due to the inherent intricacies of food production.

In this article, we will delve into the reasons why quantifying the impact of food products demands a specialized approach, discuss why Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) emerges as the most used tool for this critical task, and introduce Carbon Maps’ approach of conducting product-level LCA on food products.

The challenges in measuring the impact of food

Did you know that about 25% of all LCAs worldwide are related to the agri-food sector? This significant representation is not without reason; it primarily stems from the complex nature of food supply chains, which encompasses a broad range of activities including farming, processing, packaging, transportation, distribution, consumption, and waste management — all of which also often involve multiple actors. Another reason is the fact that agriculture is a highly diverse field where farming methods, soil types, climate conditions, and crop varieties can vary significantly. Different practices can have varying impacts on land use, water use, soil health, and energy consumption.

For these reasons, gathering accurate and comprehensive data at each stage of the supply chain can be a significant challenge. In addition to that, ensuring the data’s accuracy and relevance can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process in and of itself. All of this compounded diversification complicates efforts to standardize assessments in the agri-food sector, making it harder to compare different products.

Without a comprehensive understanding of the intricate supply chains of raw materials with agricultural origins, achieving significant reductions in environmental impact remains an elusive goal.

Environmental indicators to measure

It is so important to first know and understand what needs to be measured before even starting to make measurements. GHG emissions are a great start but when evaluating food products, looking at a broader set of environmental impacts is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of their overall sustainability. This approach prevents unintended trade-offs, as reducing one impact, like GHG emissions, may exacerbate others, such as water use. In addition, it promotes resource efficiency by identifying opportunities to address multiple impacts simultaneously, tailors solutions to regional contexts, and ensures compliance with evolving environmental regulations.

Using LCA as a tool for measuring the impact of a food product

An LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) entails a thorough analysis of every phase in the product’s life cycle, from the initial raw materials and packaging to transportation, retail, consumption, and eventual waste processing — a holistic ‘cradle-to-grave’ perspective. It’s a 360° approach that responds to the demands of our complex agri-food systems.

This is an infographic that illustrates the 360 degree approach of Life Cycle Analysis which looks at all stages of a ood product from agriculture to waste management.

Through LCA, we can gain insights into the environmental impacts and their locations within the supply chain, pinpointing areas of high impact known as “hotspots.” This knowledge can empower you to implement precise measures for process and product enhancement, ultimately reducing their environmental footprint. Additionally, LCAs allow the assessment of various types of impacts, such as climate change, eutrophication, human toxicity, land use and water use.

The Benefits of Conducting Product-level LCA

Solving the sustainability problem of our food system would be so much easier if LCA was a perfect methodology. Unfortunately, it is not without its limitations and criticisms. These include challenges related to data quality and availability as well as simplified assumptions that may not capture real-world complexities. There are also criticisms regarding its productivist and service nature which we’ve written about.

While the challenges of conducting LCA on food products are undeniable, the benefits are equally compelling. The LCA approach ensures that all food products are calculated in the same way, enabling fair comparisons between products belonging to the same product portfolio. This comparison is also suitable for assessing different production strategies of the same product. As an example, you can compare the impacts of wheat and maize, which have similar production systems, but you cannot compare the impacts of beef and wheat as their production systems are different. This standardization (ISO 14040 series) allows for the assessment of products’ environmental impacts on a level playing field, helping organizations make informed decisions about their products’ sustainability.

The benefits go beyond standardization; LCA can even be applied in the early stages of product innovation and development where environmental considerations are integrated into the design and development of the product. This eco-design concept aims to minimize resource consumption, energy use, emissions, and waste generated in the food production.

Methods for Conducting Product-Level LCA

The traditional method of conducting LCA for a single food product is time-consuming, expensive, and data-intensive, involving months, significant costs, and expert input. When considering assessing a portfolio of hundreds or thousands of products, the challenge becomes even more pronounced. This is where technology, specifically AI and machine learning, enters the picture. By automating the exhaustive task of data collection and calculation, an agri-food organization can redirect resources toward emission management and reduction, focusing on strategic actions. Carbon Maps’ AI-based algorithms is at the forefront of this shift, presenting a new era of environmental accounting for the food industry, enabling quicker, more scalable, and automated calculations, and allowing industry professionals to leverage insights for strategic decision-making.

There are two primary approaches to how Carbon Maps conducts product-level LCA:

This is an infographic that illustrates the difference between a Generic LCA and a Specific LCA. It shows what types of data are needed to conduct a full Life Cycle Analysis of a food product.

Generic LCA

This method leverages data from national statistics and databases, such as Agribalyse in France. It serves as the foundation for conducting LCA, providing a standardized reference point for assessing environmental impacts. The advantage of generic LCA is that it ensures a sufficient base of data to make representative calculations for conditions in different countries. It’s a practical choice when detailed primary data is limited.

Specific LCA

Specific LCA is a more granular approach than generic LCA. At Carbon Maps, we use regional data and model it on available open data and relevant research papers to yield results with increased precision. This approach can offer actionable insights to operational teams in food organizations, such as procurement, marketing and R&D. The environmental impact of a particular product is thus reflected more closely by specific LCA.

The difference between Generic LCA and Specific LCA

As we highlighted earlier, the diversity in agriculture arises from factors such as farming methods, crop varieties, and climate conditions. The strength of the Specific LCA method lies in its ability to navigate this diversity effectively. That strength can especially prove to be a differentiator when you consider a country like France that boasts of a rich agricultural history and is characterized by diverse geographical terrains. Taking the more granular approach that leverages regional data allows for a closer assessment of products’ impacts.

Meeting the sustainability challenge in global food production requires a practical strategy, and product-level LCAs play a crucial role in providing precisely that. The ability to rigorously measure the impact of your product at each stage of the food value chain is essential for steering your climate strategy and implementing impactful reduction measures. Despite recognizing the limitations of LCA, its robust scientific foundation and comparability position it as the most widely utilized method for evaluating a product’s environmental impact. As sustainability becomes more central to our global agenda, LCA is likely to continue to play a crucial role in guiding and measuring progress toward a more environmentally responsible future.