Considering the role of life cycle analysis in holistic food systems research, policy, and practice

Andrew Berardy, Thomas Seager, Christine Costello, Christopher Wharton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


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 desir-able, often normatively valued, characteristics of food systems, such as redundancy, that could be considered more sustainable from a resilience per-spective. LCA’s requirement of a functional unit also causes methodological bias favoring efficiency over resilience and other difficult-to-quantify prop-erties. This efficiency bias results in favorable eval-uations of conventional production techniques and plant-based foods since they typically have the low-est impacts per unit of output when compared to alternative agriculture systems and animal-based foods. Such research findings may drive policymakers as well as consumers to prefer the more ef-ficient options, with the possible outcome of di-minishing 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-227
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 30 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Development
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Health(social science)

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