The production of food has an impact on the environment. A method to calculate this impact has been developed, called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
It is a system based on the assessment of emissions produced over the complete life cycle. All production system stages are analyzed along the whole chain: from raw materials to product consumption to waste disposal.
Emissions of all inputs for agriculture and raw materials are then assessed, including all needed: irrigation water, pesticides or fertilizers applied to the soil, etc. The life cycle of food systems also includes the stages of processing, distribution and sale of products, up to the use by the consumer. This last step also consists of the resources needed to prepare a meal, refrigerate the ingredients, and dispose of them. By calculating all the environmental impacts in each step, the total impact of the entire life cycle of a product system is achieved.
Today, LCA life cycle assessment studies are the best and most effective way to fully calculate the environmental impact of food, different diets and different food production systems. It is recommended by international institutions, such as the European Commission and the United Nations Environment Programme, as a valuable tool for developing sustainability policies. The reason is that it allows to quantitatively evaluate the environmental impacts during the entire life cycle, examining its performance. This also means following the path of raw materials step by step: from extraction, through all transformation and transport processes, to their return to the soil as waste.
Professionals regularly use LCA studies to support eco-labelling and environmental product declarations. Calculating the emissions step by step makes it possible to understand which are the most impacting and where to improve performance.
The results obtained from LCA analyses are then generally used to compare the environmental impacts of different products. This, however, can take to errors. It is not always correct to compare products if they are very different. For example, when comparing the impacts of plant and animal foods, it is essential to consider that they have very different nutritional values. So, it is not always correct to make direct comparisons simplistically. Still, we must consider, for example, that animal source foods are much more nutrient-dense than vegetables, so a lower amount is enough to meet nutritional needs. Therefore, it makes sense when making comparisons to take into account variables and try to obtain data that are as correctly comparable as possible.
It is also necessary to contextualize the impacts of the local situation in which they are. The production of agricultural and livestock chains takes place on thousands of farms scattered over very different territories. So, we need to look at various aspects like biodiversity, soil carbon sequestration and ecosystem services, which allow for a more authentic and realistic assessment of systems.
This will be possible thanks to technology, with the development of IT tools for data collection, which will allow calculating the impacts of even very complex supply chains in an exact way. Only in this way will it be possible to know the real impacts correctly, without overestimating or underestimating supply chains. Once the most impactful phases have been precisely identified, appropriate improvement actions can be implemented in the various processes to mitigate the climate effectively.