Keywords: Life cycle assessment, Environmental management, systems analysis.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is an environmental management tool developed for use in the manufacturing and processing sectors of the economy. It assesses the comprehensive environmental impacts of products, processes, and activities by quantifying their environmental effects along the life cycle from extraction of raw materials, through processing, manufacturing, transportation, use and on to final disposal. This paper begins by reviewing the development of LCA and describing current methodology which involves the following stages: Goal Definition and Scoping, Inventory Analysis, Impact Assessment and Improvement Assessment.
More recently research has been initiated to develop LCA as a tool for environmental analysis of food production systems. This requires consideration of issues such as landscape degradation, biodiversity and soil sustainability in addition to those environmental impacts that are conventionally included in LCA. The problems in developing LCA methodology for this type of analysis are discussed in Section 5, alongside other challenges to current LCA methodology. These include:
drawing appropriate system boundaries, allocation among co-products, role of crop rotations and defining functional units. Assumptions made about any of these factors can alter the LCA results and examples are given in this paper. Therefore, it is important to develop methodological approaches that give the most realistic assessment of environmental impacts, so that LCA can be used as a practical and useful tool in defining pathways to environmentally sustainable activity. Current research activities in this area are discussed and suggestions are made for further development of LCA methodology.
Sarah J Cowell and Prof Roland Clift OBE, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK.
36 pages, 7 figures, 6 tables, 27 refs.