During the current climate crisis, there is great demand for information about the climate and environmental impact of products. It helps in making better choices. When comparing different food products, each product’s nutritional importance should also be addressed to make sustainable choices. How can we do this? For example, which is more climate-friendly: milk or oat milk?
Food production and the consumption of food products have a significant impact on the climate and environment. Impacts are generated at different stages of the production-consumption chain – in many different ways, and for various reasons. Various scientific fields study impacts caused by individual stages using appropriate methods. Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) help to perceive the impacts generated during the entire chain and enable comparisons between different products.
An LCA is an efficiency indicator. It measures ecological, not economic, efficiency. It indicates the number of (negative) environmental impacts generated in relation to manufactured products. Impacts are indicated per product unit. Concerning food, the unit is most commonly one kilogram of product.
According to the international LCA standard, comparing the environmental impact of different products is based on this unit. It is a functional unit, and it should represent the functioning of products being compared in a way that “does it justice”. It goes without saying that selecting the functional unit may significantly affect assessment results. It should be selected appropriately, relative to the goals of the assessment, and the selection must be justified.
One kilogram of food product. What does one kilogram say about the functionality of a food product? Nothing really.
The functionality of food for consumers is difficult to determine. People may have various motives for eating, ranging from satisfying hunger (being full), refilling energy levels (feeling faint, keeping going), reducing anxiety, being accustomed to eating (watching a movie is impossible without snacks) or consciously taking care of health. Which of these is the appropriate functionality of food, forming an acceptable basis for a functional unit in LCAs?
According to LCA principles, all methodological choices must be in harmony with the goal of the assessment (which is why the goal must be clear).
During the current climate and ecological crisis, the bar must be set high. In terms of food, we are talking about significant reductions in the impact of food production and drastic changes in diets. This is where product-specific LCAs that produce information for consumers must be anchored. As a result, we need to determine a necessary level for food consumption. In addition, it is absolutely essential to focus on nutritional needs.
Notwithstanding the various reasons to eat, the basic purpose of food is to provide sufficient nutrition, i.e. a sufficient amount of energy and protective nutrients. At the same time, ensuring sufficient nutrition is also part of sustainable development, and it is strongly linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – alongside significant environmental goals.
Traditionally, the environmental and nutritional impacts of food have been studied separately. In LCAs, it is necessary to investigate these side by side – not only for the methodological reasons stated above, but also for the legitimacy of the functional requirements justified by an LCA. It cannot be justified (at least not in the name of sustainability) to encourage people to make food choices or change their diets unless these are on a nutritionally sustainable footing. In practice, consumers require product-specific analysis methods that are easy to understand and help them to make sustainable product choices.
Recently, scientists have started to develop nutritionally functional units for LCAs and other assessment methods that support them. This is a challenging theme, and more development is required before these methods can be reliably applied in practice.
The NEPGa project helps to take massive leaps forward in the development of the scientific methodology that combines nutrition with the environmental impact.
Launched at the beginning of March 2021, the three-year NEPGa project (Integration of nutrition to food LCA and communication – the product category approach) assumes that bringing the perspectives of nutrition, the environment and communication together is possible with a specific product category approach. In the approach, assessments and communication cover key nutritional and environmental factors at a more general level than the product level. Development focuses on several different product categories. The project also aims to promote a future labelling method at a product level, bringing the environment and nutrition together reliably.
In the NEPGa project, scientific development is based on cooperation between the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland. In the field of communication, we work with the Finnish Heart Association. The project involves nine food companies of various sizes: Valio, Fazer, Atria, Kesko, Lantmännen, Jalotofu, Helsingin mylly, Gold&Green, and a farmer and food processor based in Southwest Finland. Other companies and stakeholders may also participate in project events.
Finally, NEPGa will also compare which is better: milk or oat milk.