Considering the Role of Life Cycle Analysis in Holistic Food Systems Research Policy and Practice
Researchers use life cycle assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impacts of foods, providing useful information to other researchers, policy-makers, consumers, and manufacturers. However, LCA is ill-equipped to account for desirable, often normatively valued, characteristics of food systems, such as redundancy, that could be considered more sustainable from a resilience perspective. LCA’s requirement of a functional unit also causes methodological bias favoring efficiency over resilience and other difficult-to-quantify properties. This efficiency bias results in favorable evaluations of conventional production techniques and plant-based foods since they typically have the lowest impacts per unit of output when compared to alternative agriculture systems and animal-based foods. Such research findings may drive policy-makers as well as consumers to prefer the more efficient options, with the possible outcome of diminishing resilience. This research and policy commentary explains why complementary assessment methodologies are necessary for comprehensive sustainability assessments that support researchers, policy-makers, and other relevant stakeholders in decision-making for food systems sustainability. In addition to LCA, researchers examining food systems sustainability issues should consider integrating other frameworks and methods such as life cycle sustainability assessments, sustainable materialism, backcasting and scenario building, and food systems assessments to help generate a holistic understanding of the systems being analyzed.
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