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Life Cycle Assessment – A Tool to Support Food Loss/ Food Waste Reduction Strategies

Brad Ridoutt, Danielle Baird, Kathryn Bastiaans, Ross Darnell, Gilly Hendrie, Pablo Juliano, Malcolm Riley, Peerasak Sanguansri, Julie Syrette, Manny Noakes and Brian Keating

Surveys consistently reveal that people don’t like to waste food. In fact, many people actually feel uncomfortable, or even guilty, when questioned about the subject. More or less everyone agrees that there should be fewer food losses and less food waste.
However, goodwill and agreement about the need for something to be done are not always enough to motivate actions that significantly address the problem. In this article, life cycle assessment (LCA) is presented as a tool which can be used to support food loss and food waste reduction strategies.
Loss and waste of food occur for many reasons. In some cases, particularly in developing countries, lack of access to infrastructure and technology can be a major contributing factor. However, very often, loss and waste of food persists because the effort and expense associated with taking action are not justified when viewed from purely a private financial perspective. In Australia, where technologies are readily accessible and there is sufficient wealth to invest in food loss / food waste prevention, it is estimated that only 71% of food energy in the domestic food system (balance of local production, exports and imports) is utilised for human consumption. This means that food losses and waste in Australia are not too different from the estimated global average of 30%.
Furthermore, analyses based on the national food intake surveys conducted in Australia in 1995 and 2011 suggest that overall, the situation has not changed greatly over time. For some food categories, losses and waste appear to have declined. For example, dairy product losses and waste were found to be 20% in 2011 compared to 24% in 1995. This could be related to a shift in the proportion of dairy product consumption away from fluid milk toward higher value products such as yogurt, cheese and cream. However, for other food categories, losses and waste appear to have increased. For example, losses and waste of fruit appear to have increased from 22% to 37%, possibly related to the increased consumption of whole fruit and reduced consumption of less perishable fruit juice. Similarly, losses and waste of vegetables appear to have increased from 21% to 27%, possibly related to the shift in consumption away from potato and other starchy roots towards other types of vegetables which are generally more perishable. The expanding availability of chilled soups, sauces, drinks and other products which have traditionally been sold in less perishable ambient stable formats could be another contributing factor.
Many interventions to reduce food losses and waste are possible at every level of the food system, from farming to food processing to retailing, as well as in household and commercial kitchens. However, the continuing and pervasive nature of food losses and waste suggests that many of the possible steps are not actually being taken. Perhaps, if the environmental impacts of food losses and waste were quantified it would make the case for intervention more compelling.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique to assess the environmental impacts associated with products and services taking into account the different stages of production, use and end-of-life. For food products, this usually involves the production of fertilisers, fuels and other inputs to agriculture, the processes involved in farming, food processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and consumption. The disposal or recycling of packaging as well as food losses and waste are also relevant. At each life cycle stage there can be resource use and emissions to the environment. The life cycle perspective is important to avoid so-called burden shifting: isolated interventions aimed at reducing environmental impacts which actually have the effect of shifting the impact to another life cycle stage, to another geography, or from one type of environmental impact to another. The life cycle perspective is also important because it unites the actors in the value chain. In much the same way that value chain participants must work together to ensure food quality and safety, they also need to work together to achieve overall environmental improvement. Very often, food processors, who might lead the value chain in product development and marketing, discover that the major environmental impacts are not occurring within the sphere of their direct operations. As such, LCA has the potential to inspire collaboration and co-innovation across the value chain to achieve improved environmental performance. This has taken on new levels of significance with the emergence of footprint indicators based on LCA (e.g. carbon footprint, water footprint), which are increasingly being communicated to the public (Ridoutt et al. 2015).
Food losses and food waste can deeply impact on environmental footprint metrics. For this reason, LCA and related footprinting measures can give strong direction to the need to achieve food loss and food waste reduction. This is demonstrated in the case of the food chain of fresh mango in Australia (Ridoutt et al. 2010). For the period of analysis, 2003 to 2009, it was estimated that for every 1 kg of fresh mango consumed in Australia, 1.36 kg needed to be purchased, and 2.27 kg needed to be dispatched from the orchards in northern Australia. The impact of these losses and waste on life cycle carbon and water footprints was staggering. Losses and waste increased the carbon footprint from 321 to 914 kg CO2 per kg, and the water footprint from 67 to 145 L H2O per kg. Since this time, improved supply chain management has been a major priority in the Australian mango industry. As more and more food manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers seek to make footprint claims, this is expected to result in greater priority being given to food loss and food waste reduction as a means of improving footprint results.
However, carbon and water footprinting are not only applicable to products and services, the approach is also increasingly being applied by organisations seeking to demonstrate environmental responsibility, following ISO/TS 14072 (ISO/TS 14072 2014). For example, the international hotel chain Accor have reported their life cycle organisational water use (Accor 2015). Interestingly, only 1.2% was associated with contracted laundry services. In contrast, more than 85% was associated with food services. It is therefore clearly evident that reducing food losses and waste would be a most effective strategy to reduce overall water consumption associated with the organisation’s activities.
LCA can also be used to raise awareness among consumers of the environmental impacts of wasteful habits. In 2005 the Victorian State Government launched an advertising campaign that vividly portrayed helium filled black balloons emerging from household appliances. Along with the message that each black balloon represented 50 g of greenhouse gas, the campaign encouraged households to use energy wisely to reduce impacts on climate change. Other supporting information provided practical energy saving suggestions such as washing clothes in cold water, installing additional home insulation, and switching appliances off at the power point wherever possible. The campaign has been widely regarded as contributing positively to an increase in energy saving behaviours and renewable energy purchasing. Similar strategies are now being employed to address household food waste, which is a critical intervention point, especially in developed countries. For example, the “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign, originating in the UK and now replicated in parts of Australia, combines messages about the economic and environmental cost of food waste with practical suggestions about how to purchase and store food wisely and recipe ideas that combine food leftovers (see (
There is no one simple remedy for food loss and waste as these occur at every stage of the food system. What is needed is a system that motivates each of the actors in the food system to take responsibility for discovering and implementing smart local solutions. For businesses involved in the production and supply of food, losses and waste represent an economic cost in terms of unrealised sales, excessive raw material usage, as well as disposal costs. However, interventions to reduce losses and waste involve effort and expense and sometimes conflict with other business objectives. Part of the issue is that businesses do not incur the full cost of food loss and waste as many of the environmental and social costs are externalised (for example, see Food Wastage Footprint, Quantifying the environmental impacts of food loss and waste can make the case for action by businesses more compelling, especially when LCA-based footprint metrics are used as a basis for reporting and tracking performance. Similarly, LCA-based footprint metrics can be used to raise awareness in the community about the environmental cost of food waste. This can only help to reduce wasteful food usage behaviours.
Accor (2015)The Accor group’s environmental footprint, available at: 21-research/environmental-footprint.html
ISO/TS 14072 (2014) Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines for organizational life cycle assessment. International Organization for Standardization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Ridoutt B, Fantke P, Pfister S, Bare J, Boulay AM, Cherubini F, Frischknecht R, Hauschild M, Hellweg S, Henderson A, Jolliet O, Levasseur A, Margni M, McKone T, Michelsen O, Milà i Canals L, Page G, Pant R, Raugei M, Sala S, Saouter E, Verones F and Wiedmann T (2015) Making sense of the minefield of footprint indicators. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49(5):.2601-2603.
Ridoutt, BG, Juliano P, Sanguansri P and Sellahewa, J (2010) The water footprint of food waste: case study of fresh mango in Australia. J. Clean Prod. 18: 1714-1721.
This article is a summary of a presentation given at the IUFoST Symposium: Food Waste and Food Losses: Addressing the Global Challenges, that was held during the Tenth Dubai International Food Safety Conference, 27-28 October 2015. 
Dr Brad Ridoutt is a Principal Research Scientist with Australia’s  Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). His expertise is in life cycle sustainability assessment which is applied to agricultural production, food systems and sustainable diets; e-mail:   
Danielle Baird, Kathryn Bastiaans, Ross Darnell, Gilly Hendrie, Pablo Juliano, Malcolm Riley, Peerasak Sanguansri, Julie Syrette, Manny Noakes and Brian Keating are also at CSIRO. The Australian food waste statistics mentioned in this article come from research conducted with funding from the Australian Government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC, Barton, ACT, Australia; Project No. PRJ-008806 and PRJ-009653).


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Food Fraud – and the focus on prevention – is an important and evolving food industry focus. Even though the vast majority of these incidents do not have a health hazard in some ways they are more dangerous because the substances and actions are unknown and untraceable.  The types of food fraud stretch the traditional role of food science and technology to include criminology, supply chain traceability and other control systems. The food authenticity and integrity testing will be the most complex actions and their value should be assessed in terms of the contribution to prevention. This Scientific Information Bulletin (SIB) presents an introduction, review of incidents, the fundamentals of prevention which then provide insight on the optimal role of Food Science and Technology.
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