Friday, March 20, 2020

Ask a reductionist question and you will get a reductionist answer

Through the narrow product perspective of the life cycle assessments the multiple functions of agriculture are overlooked. The method also fail to capture the indirect and dynamic effects of changes in the agriculture and food system as well as the feedback loops and drivers of the system. In this it mimics the markets where the value of food is expressed only in monetary terms. By sticking to those framings and and methods we are reinforcing them.

In the article “Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessments” in Nature sustainability, van der Werf, Knudsen and Cederberg, from France, Denmark and Sweden respectively demonstrate the inadequacy of LCA for comparisons between conventional production systems and agro-ecological and organic systems.* They explain how the concerns of the public regarding the environmental impact of different production systems, through the LCA approach, is transformed into the question how big is the environmental impact from 1 kg of x produced in system z compared to system y.

The narrow perspective that results from this product focus means that the multifunctional role of agriculture is excluded and that vital resources are neglected. LCA focus on negative environmental impacts of production but doesn’t consider positive impacts such as those in the ecosystem function framework (the authors refer to them as “services” but I prefer the term function as services leads the mind towards a narrow utilitarian, market based, view).

LCA mostly neglects impacts on biodiversity or reduce it to one simplistic measurement. But biodiversity is part of the agriculture system and not only an impact category. The same goes for land, where “land-use” often is part of an LCA, but land is an integral part of the agriculture system and not an input that is used in the production. By not recognizing these relationships LCA can’t deal with soil health, land degradation or agricultural bio-diversity itself. The authors give other examples of shortcomings.

The most important criticism by the researchers, in my view, is that the LCAs can’t take properly into consideration the indirect effects of a shift to agroecological systems (or other systems for that matter). There is a special LCA breed called consequential LCA which supposedly aims to include such impacts, but in reality there are huge controversies on how to apply such an approach.

A general rule of ecology formulated by Garret Hardin is “you can never change one thing”, because as soon as you do that, other things change as well. It is well known that if a product becomes cheaper, consumption will increase. Through the industrialization of agriculture crop production, food is very cheap, but this has also increased food waste tremendously. The increased productivity in crop production has also made it commercially interesting to use crops such as grain and soy beans for animal feed. This has favored the monogastric animals such as pigs and chicken over ruminants that feed on grass (even ruminants get more farmed crops to eat nowadays). Chicken consumption has increased almost 10 times globally over the last fifty years, and apart from lower feed costs this has been driven by industrialization of the production itself. 

Chicken has not mainly crowded out more resource demanding beef and pork but rather the less resource-demanding grains and pulses, and in the process it has lost its role as small scale food residue converter. So, while the environmental foot print of chicken is small compared to beef according to LCAs, in reality, the changes in production and changes in markets and consumption has led to a huge increase in the size of the environmental foot print of human food chains.

A traditonal landscape in Sweden, Photo:Tobias Nilsson
The most important changes of the agricultural system in much of the Western world, and increasingly in most countries, over the past seventy years is the abandonment of small farms, small fields, pastures and marginal lands and the decreasing diversity of the farming systems. There are fewer farms and each farm mechanize and specialize into a few crops or one kind of animals. Not only farms specialize, whole regions do, even countries do. Livestock and crop production has been separated and cycles of nutrients between animals and crops as well as between farms and the rest of the food system have been broken. This has, in turn, been ”solved” by massive application of chemical fertilizers. The simplification of the production system has also led to the use of pesticides. Market orientation, a linear production model with increasing use of inputs, specialization, mechanization and increased production (and thus consumption) are all mutually reinforcing. The resulting changes in the agriculture landscape and consumption patterns are not captured by any LCAs, and even if you read hundreds of life cycle assessments you will fail to understand the driver of development.

In general, LCAs contribute little to the understanding of agriculture systems; on the contrary, when looking into LCAs one can get many mistaken ideas. One example is the comparisons between organic and conventional food systems that is discussed above. Another example are comparisons of environmental impact of diets which disregard the fact that the farm and food system is highly networked and interdependent.  

Already the question asked for the LCA leads the mind and the method into a one-dimensional perspective of agriculture, as a producer of things to be sold. Through this the method becomes reductionist and unable to capture the diversity and multifunctionality of farming systems. To a large extent the LCA is a technological mirror to the capitalist market where the value of a crop or an animal is only expressed in monetary terms. Which, of course, is the reason for why the method is so popular.

For sure, there are situations where a lifecycle assessment has value. It can be a useful tool to analyze production chains to find hotspots for improvements. But it is not, and will never be, an analysis that will answer the questions how our food system should look like as little as the price of a food stuff tells us what we should eat. New scientific methods are of course also welcome, but after looking into loads of various sustainability tools, standards or index I am convinced that there is not one that will give us all the answers. 

Fortunately there are many ways to understand the food system. The best starting point is probably to grow (breed) your own food, prepare, preserve, cook, share and eat. Through those practices you will both understand the food system and shape it.