Telling our carbon footprint story

11 March 2022
Telling our carbon footprint story

AgResearch's world-class Life Cycle Assessment team provides an evidence base to help maintain NZ's export market edge.

As New Zealand seeks to maintain its position as a leading food producer to the world, measuring and reporting the environmental impact of its products has never been more critical.

This is where AgResearch’s world-class Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) team plays a pivotal role: by delivering research to prove the efficiency and sustainability of food production in New Zealand, and how it stacks up against the rest of the world.

“I use the analogy of writing a story,” explains AgResearch scientist and LCA team member, Dr Andre Mazzetto.

“In this case, we - the people that work with LCA - are the storytellers, and the food product is the main character. So we need to understand where the product comes from, how it is produced, the main inputs for the production, how it is used, how it is distributed etc. This way, we can tell the story, and based on all this information, we calculate the product's environmental burdens, such as the carbon footprint.”

AgResearch’s principal scientist Dr Stewart Ledgard, an internationally recognised LCA expert, says LCA is a tool that analyses resource use and environmental emissions associated with a product or system – but it’s also more than that.

“LCA accounts for the impacts from extraction of all raw material used and production of all of the inputs used, many of which may be from offshore. It often also covers the full life cycle of a product, including processing, transport, retail, consumer and waste stages. Results are expressed per kilogram of a product and so it is often used to help make decisions in choice of food, goods or systems to minimise our impacts on the environment.”

The work of AgResearch’s LCA team, also including modeller Shelley Falconer, has recently been recognised by being named a finalist in the Hill Laboratories Primary Industries category of The Kudos science excellence awards in 2021.

Among its many accomplishments, in recent months the team has worked to measure the carbon footprint of products such as Simply Milk and a range of Anchor Milk brands, as well as the “100% Angus beef” produced by Silver Fern Farms; which enabled them to take actions to offset their emissions such as purchasing carbon credits from third parties, and therefore be certified as carbon zero or carbon neutral.

In January 2021, DairyNZ released research it commissioned from the AgResearch LCA team that showed New Zealand to be a world leader in the carbon footprint for milk production – with the most efficient production among comparable countries, using a measure of kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of fat and protein corrected milk.

DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle described the dairy research as playing a key part in understanding how New Zealand dairy farms stack up and informing how Kiwi farmers can be even more efficient.

The AgResearch team has also worked with the Beef + Lamb New Zealand on similar research measuring the carbon footprint of the country’s sheep and beef sectors. Previous research has also demonstrated that New Zealand has a lower carbon footprint per kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) for sheep meat than other comparable producing nations.

Andre says another advantage of LCA research is providing accurate measurements to debunk myths or challenge assumptions about exported products, including those that sit behind a concept such as “food miles”. Even accounting for freight to overseas markets, New Zealand products often stack up favourably by environmental impact, given the way they are produced.

“Consumers are interested in knowing more about their impact on the environment, and producers understand that it is important to be transparent and provide an environmental assessment that is accurate and certified,” Andre says.

The team expects demand for LCA research to only grow with public concern about climate change, water scarcity and other environmental issues. The research is also likely to expand into areas like social and cultural impacts.

“In future, it will go beyond just getting results for current systems and products to using LCA in designing new future systems and products with greater resource use efficiency and lower environmental impacts,” Stewart says.

“Additionally it will go beyond a focus on only climate change to multiple impacts, including human health, ecosystem quality and waste reduction”.