Life cycle assessment validates NZ efficiency

AgResearch scientists are leading the way with tools to evaluate the resource use and environmental efficiency of New Zealand agricultural systems and products, and to account for these along the whole supply chain or life cycle.

The application of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to agricultural products is most evident with carbon footprinting but is rapidly evolving to include wider environmental impacts.

A key benefit of life cycle assessment is that it enables evaluation of the potential impacts of products on multiple resource use and environmental indicators for system optimisation. But for it to be fair and effective requires standard methodologies that reflect differing agricultural systems around the world. Because these LCA requirements originate in Europe this has not always been the case.

Dr Stewart Ledgard, Principal Scientist from our Nutrient Management and Environmental Footprinting team, has an important role to play in ensuring New Zealand food products have fair and equal access to these markets. He is currently contributing to work driven by the European Commission as they investigate the potential implementation of a universal European food labelling scheme.  This would allow consumers to see first-hand the impact that the product has on the environment.

“These include environmental effects that can potentially affect human health as well as other eco-system indicators such as water quality,” Dr Ledgard says.

“There are currently studies underway in Europe to test evaluations for milk and red meat products so Beef+Lamb New Zealand and the dairy industry are involved, along with the Ministry for Primary Industries. I’m assisting by giving feedback on methods being tested and assessing relevant New Zealand data.”

This is the latest step in research spanning more than a decade and follows the ‘food miles’ debate that was the catalyst for ongoing research on quantifying the environmental footprint of our goods aimed at European markets.

“After that there was a lot of work done in New Zealand on life cycle assessment: from extraction of the raw material through the farm processing, transport, consumer and waste stages – the entire life cycle of a product. There was a need to understand the relative contributions of all the stages.”

Dr Ledgard worked with the dairy industry to develop methods looking at New Zealand produced milk that was at the time mainly focused on the farm, processing and the shipping overseas.

It was followed with a detailed look at the sheep industry, looking at lamb and mutton.

“But we also examined at the entire life cycle including the consumer in the United Kingdom looking at the relative contribution to the carbon footprint (the total emissions per kilogram of meat) throughout that entire life cycle,” he says.

Dr Ledgard recently led a similar project for the UN’s Food and Agriculture on small ruminant products – sheep and goat meat and fibre products –  to get common agreed methods for environmental benchmarking. This is currently being reviewed and revised.

Benefit to New Zealand

Current New Zealand (NZ) overseas merchandise trade values for dairy, beef and sheep, and deer products annually aggregate to some $26 billion as free-on-board (FOB) export value, with notable proportions of higher value lamb, wool and venison exports to Europe and beef and milk products to Asia.  Consumer awareness about environmental sustainability, and including carbon footprinting is high among a discerning consumer base, especially in Europe, who consume much of New Zealand’s high value lamb and venison market products.  Taking New Zealand chilled lamb exports to Europe as an example, some $580 million FOB value annually would be a market segment underpinned in part by New Zealand environmental credentials.

Low environmental impacts, including a low carbon footprint, are laudable goals for efficient food production systems globally, with whole LCA for New Zealand pastoral livestock systems elucidating efficiencies and ‘hot spots’ along the product value chain.  In consideration of lamb and beef whole chain LCA, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions showed carbon footprint segmentation from cradle-to-farm-gate, product processing, transportation and retail/consumption/waste around 80% and 90%; 3% and 2%; 5% and 4%; and 12% and 3% respectively.

Opportunities for on-farm carbon reduction exist, with improved animal productivity a driver for reduced GHG emissions in the lamb sector since 1990 of 22%, attributable to improved lambing percentages and lamb performance associated with farmer needs for improved farm profitability and increased on-farm efficiencies.  Farm scale dairy system modeling in Southland has shown a 13% reduction in GHG associated with a 3% increase in profitability for farms adopting mitigation strategies.

AgResearch expertise in LCA is providing a leading influence for attaining harmonization of global carbon footprinting methodologies, which enable meaningful and valid system comparisons to support New Zealand products’ environmental credentials.

Project Investment

The LCA carbon footprinting programme from 2008 to 2011 comprised a combined government and industry investment of $1,024,000.  The investment arose from a collaborative partnership between AgResearch and funding partners representing the pastoral livestock sector, namely; Ministry of Primary Industries, Fonterra, Landcorp Ltd, Ballance Agri-nutrients, Meat Industry Association, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, Elders, Wool Partners International, DEEResearch, Deer Industry New Zealand, and the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand.