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Life Cycle Thinking

Learn more about life cycle thinking and life cycle assessment, their limitations and applications to food systems.
The Concept Of Life Cycle Thinking And Related Limitations
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In this article, you will learn more about life cycle thinking and related limitations.

The Concept of Life Cycle Thinking

In this step we will look at life cycle thinking and life cycle assessment, and their limitations and applications to food systems. Life cycle thinking is essential to improve food system sustainability.

Life Cycle Thinking and Life Cycle Assessment

Food systems have a strong influence on sustainability outcomes. Life cycle thinking (LCT), measurement and management strategies are needed to improve food system sustainability. Life cycle thinking is a sustainability management approach that considers all applicable supply chain interactions related to goods, services, activities, or entities. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is one of the LCT-based approaches, and it deals with questions about what is and what is not sustainable with regard to environmental sustainability. LCA evaluates the environmental effects of products, services, or systems with specific functions, and takes into account all phases of life cycles, from resource production to the end of life. It considers all material and energy flows that are part of products or service units. An LCA typically has four phases: goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation.

Components of Life-cycle Analysis

LCA diagram: Resources, Material Processing, Product Manufacturing, Distribution, Use, End of Life Source: Brusseau, 2019


The application of LCAs has strengths and weaknesses in the context of food and nutrition. The most common indicators for relationships between environment, food system, and diet, involve greenhouse gas emissions, land use, meat and dairy consumption, quality of diet, use of energy, organic food, management practices, and use of water. Greenhouse gas emissions are often the most emphasized and sometimes the only sustainability indicator of the interrelationships mentioned above. In future studies, it would be beneficial to also use other sustainability indicators in order to get more information about the levels of sustainability, depletion, and disturbance of e.g. categories of biodiversity, land use, and nitrogen and phosphorus cycle. All of the four phases of LCA include different limitations. The availability and quality of data are critical problems that affect all LCA phases. There are also LCA standards issued by the International Organization for Standardization. These standards are conducive, as complying companies are required to document their data sources. However, companies that do not comply with ISO may not document all data sources, which can substantially limit data quality. In order to improve data availability and quality, the creation of peer-reviewed and standardized LCA inventory and impact databases could help, as well as developing LCA model bases, which store basic physical and empirical connections for activities that product systems include.

Wrap Up

Life cycle assessment is an important method to analyze and evaluate the environmental impacts of a product or service from resource production to the end of their durability. Sometimes life cycle assessments are constrained by certain indicator considerations, such as a focus on greenhouse gas emissions, thus, limiting the assessment by neglecting other levels of sustainability. There are many examples of LCA applications to food systems. In the next step, we take a closer look at three cases: replacing feed for aquaculture with food waste, increasing circularity in cereal production, and increasing sustainability in Finnish wine supply chains.

© University of Helsinki
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