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

Autor(es): Ian Vázquez Rowe y Sarah McLaren, Andrew Berardy, Andrew Henderson, Nicholas Holden, Thom Huppertz, Olivier Jolliet, Camillo De Camillis, Marguerite Renouf, Benedetto Rugani, Merja Saarinen, Jolieke van der Pols, Assumpció Antón Vallejo, Marta Bianchi, Abhishek Chaudhary, Canxi Chen, Margot Cooreman-Algoed, Hongmin Dong, Tim Grant, Ashley Green, Elinor Hallström, Hong Minh Hoang, Adrian Leip, John Lynch, Graham McAuliffe, Brad Ridoutt, Sophie Saget, Laura Scherer, Hanna Tuomisto, Peter Tyedmers, Hannah van Zanten.

Food systems have become increasingly efficient and technologically advanced in providing food
products to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. However, providing healthy diets
within environmental limits remains a key sustainability issue as food systems continue to over use
increasingly scarce natural resources while making a major contribution to environmental impacts
such as climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity loss. At the same time, hundreds of millions
of people suffer from chronic hunger or adult obesity, and healthy diets continue to be more expensive
than energy- and nutrient-sufficient diets.
Many stakeholders are interested in the question of how to assess the environmental impacts of
healthy diets, and in exploring solutions for minimizing trade-offs between nourishing populations
and safeguarding the environment. Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies have an important role in
contributing to solutions because they evaluate the environmental impacts of different practices,
products and systems, and they facilitate the exploration of benefits and trade-offs across multiple
types of impacts. LCA studies of food items increasingly address nutritional as well as environmental
aspects, and this requires consideration of additional methodological aspects.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) initiated a project to identify
opportunities for further developing environmental and nutritional LCA methodology and building
consensus about best practice, and to propose future research needs. The project involved 30
environmental and nutritional LCA researchers from 18 countries and ran between May and November
2021. The project focused on assessing food items as opposed to raw materials, meals and/or diets,
and it is a step towards more comprehensive meal and dietary LCA studies.
A key issue concerns the intended purpose of an LCA study. This requires some consideration of the
reason for the study, the intended application and the audience. Foods may be consumed for a variety
of reasons including for their nutritional value, for enjoyment, and/or as a means of taking part in –
or contributing to – socio-cultural functions. This report defines a nutritional LCA (nLCA) study as an
LCA study where the provision of nutrient(s) is considered as either the main function or one of the
main functions of a food item. nLCA studies should be undertaken by multidisciplinary teams involving
nutritional and health scientists as well as environmental scientists.
At the outset, the goal and scope of an nLCA study should be carefully defined following the
recommendations in this report, including:
• Undertake an nLCA when nutrients are and/or nutrition is relevant to the decision-maker and
decision context (Chapter 3).
• Clearly identify the target audience and the target population for a study because different
populations have different nutritional requirements, and this may influence the assessment of
nutritional value (Chapter 5).
• Report the quantities of as many essential nutrients as possible (Chapters 5 and 6).
• Aim to provide information on the nutritional quality and/or health impacts in addition to
nutrient quantities (Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Section 7.5.4).
• The system boundaries should include all stages of the product life cycle that affect nutritional
value. The final processing, storage and/or preparation of food items may have a notable effect
on their nutritional value, and this should be taken into consideration (including the potential
fortification of foods) (Chapter 5).
• Choose a modelling perspective (typically attributional or consequential) based on the
relevance to the decision situation (Chapter 4).

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