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Integration of environment and nutrition in life cycle assessment of food items: opportunities and challenges

  • Published on April 14, 2023

This report is the outcome of a consensus-building project to agree on best practices for environmental and nutritional Life Cycle Assessment (nLCA) methodology, and identify future research needs. The project involved 30 nutritional and environmental LCA researchers from 18 countries. It focused on the assessment of food items (as opposed to meals or diets).

Today’s agrifood systems are not delivering on their urgently needed contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). After decades of progress, the number of hungry people has been increasing for the past five years, reaching 811 million people in 2020. More than 3 billion people still cannot afford a healthy diet, obesity and non-communicable diseases are on the rise, and agrifood systems are contributing significantly to natural resource degradation and to exacerbating the effects of climate change. A major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, agrifood systems are also the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture is also responsible for a continued overuse of freshwater, degraded soils and for eroding the productive capacity of land.

The complexity of the challenges facing policy makers has resulted in the development of multiple frameworks, definitions and methods to capture the interaction between the components of agrifood systems and the linkages with other systems, such as health and energy. Navigating through this complexity requires neutral, balanced and science-based approaches and tools, which will enable an evaluation of these complex agrifood system problems, leading to the design of context-specific interventions and innovations. Robust data and evidence are essential to enable an objective analysis of the interdependencies and trade-offs in order to ensure that the desired transformations are happening at the necessary scale and with speed towards sustainability.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) has increasingly been used to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with alternative agricultural and food technologies, food supply chains, ingredients, foods, meals and diets. LCA studies make important contributions to the debate over sustainable food systems because they evaluate the environmental impacts of alternative practices, products and systems, and allow for the exploration of benefits and trade-offs across multiple types of impacts. Thus, they can provide information to support international and national policymaking, operational, tactical and strategic management in organizations, and about the behaviour and choices of individuals related to alternative ingredients, food items, meals and diets.

LCA studies of food items increasingly address nutritional and environmental aspects, which requires the consideration of additional methodological aspects. Until relatively recently, for example, LCAs have predominantly focused on quantifying the environmental impacts based on mass or volume- based quantities of foods. Yet the nutrition provided by different food items varies widely on a mass/ volume basis, and nutrition is the most fundamental function of food systems in human societies. Therefore, it is necessary to further consider how LCA can best support the decision-making – which is concerned particularly with the provision of nutrition and related environmental impacts – undertaken by different stakeholders.

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