2.4 The value and limitations of lifecycle assessment.

2.4.1 Values and limitations of LCA.

  • LCA enables a more complete and holistic understanding of the impact of food at all stages in its production.
  • It allows analysts to identify stages or practices that generate particularly high negative impacts, and potential solutions to be identified.
  • It also reveals the trade-offs that may exist across areas of environmental concern, and that difficult decisions may need to be made.
  • Inconsistency in methodological choices (e.g. of functional units and system boundaries) makes comparisons across studies difficult. There is, however, increasing focus on encouraging standardisation of methodologies.
  • An LCA may only give an indication of the environmental impact associated with the average or industry standard production of a product – it may not give an indication of the best case outcome of a particular food product (i.e. novel production systems with vastly reduced environmental impacts may exist for a particular product, but this may or may not be taken into account in any given LCA study).
  • LCA has historically focused on environmental, not social impacts, although attempts are being made to develop a methodology for social LCAs.
  • LCA is a useful but incomplete tool for measuring of sustainability.
  • LCA can show impacts but it doesn’t necessarily tell us ‘what to do.’

2.4.2 LCAs have historically focussed on environmental impacts.

Currently, the majority of LCA studies focus on environmental impacts and do not concern themselves with social impacts.

As such, the impacts on employment, health, well-being, community benefits and human rights are not measured or represented (although the use of end-point indicators gestures in this direction).

Introducing social and economic issues adds complexity. For example, GHG emissions arising from a certain food producing activity may be high, but may also support many people’s livelihoods, have positive or negative health consequences, or represent value to communities in other ways.

LCA methodologies and standards are beginning to evolve in an attempt to incorporate measurements of social impacts into assessment.

2.4.3 Can LCAs determine whether something is sustainable?

  • No, because LCA does not consider the number of users or needs and the broader value or importance of any given product or activity.
  • LCA quantifies impacts but does not give “sustainability” thresholds (i.e. set a limit for what is an acceptable level of impact).
  • LCA cannot address broader societal questions about the impacts of consumption and consumerism in society in general.


  • LCA results are indispensable as an aid to making assessments about sustainability.

The LCA measurement of a product is useful when comparing different products with a similar function, but in the context of sustainability, this needs to be estimated in terms of how much of the product is used in absolute terms, what the trends are in its usage, what value it has for society, and other social and ethical aspects of its production or use.

For example, if the GHG of a certain food product is very high per kg, but consumption levels are very low, then its overall impact might be lower than a product with lower GHG per kg but which is consumed in large quantities. Similarly, if a food product has a high nutritional value then this should be considered within the perspective of society’s needs for nutritious healthy diets. Certain animal production systems may have higher GHG impacts than others, but the welfare of the animals raised may be better than those reared in lower GHG-impact systems.