Building on the idea that what gets measured gets managed, Michael Levine of Fonterra presented a carbon footprint Life Cycle Analysis for the dairy industry, illustrating that 85% of the carbon is produced on-farm (59% of which is cow-produced methane), 10% comes from processing and 5% results from distribution. He noted that one might assume that distribution would be the most emission-intensive part of the life cycle due to the exportation from New Zealand to Europe but this was clearly not the case. Thus, rather than focusing on more efficient ways to distribute dairy products, it is clear that the industry should seek to reduce carbon in on-farm activities.
But LCAs are not limited to carbon footprinting. Considering that 70% of global water consumption is attributed to agriculture, it is imperative that food and beverage companies focus on sustainable water management to preserve the finite resource. Because water is a local issue at the watershed level, managing withdrawals at countless sites can prove an overwhelming but important undertaking for large companies. Numerous multi-national corporations like Nestlé and Mars have taken on this challenge and invested in water footprinting and risk analysis.
Mars has conducted LCAs on at least four products to investigate water use. The study assessed embedded water across water types – blue (precipitation), gray (reclaimed) and green (groundwater). After evaluating tomato sauce brand Dolmio, M&Ms, and pet foods Whiskas and Pedigree, Mars determined that Dolmio had the largest water footprint, primarily from agricultural production. While this data illuminates where the company should focus sustainability efforts, it has struggled with how to set specific water use reduction goals. However, Mars still plans to reduce water consumption because it is simply the right thing to do. Mars also plans to build a database with the results of its LCAs to inform new recipes; while companies often look at costing sheets for inputs, this information would enable the company to also consider environmental impact and emission factors during R&D.
LCAs can be effective tools to drive sustainability efforts but the accuracy of the data collected should be taken with a grain of salt as information gaps prevail, especially since various parties often collect the data for one study. Specific numbers aside, both of these assessments emphasize that on-farm activities are the heaviest contributors to environmental footprints in the agricultural supply chain. The root of this industry’s sustainability quandary is literally in the roots.