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Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessment

Abstract

The environmental effects of agriculture and food are much discussed, with competing claims concerning the impacts of conventional and organic farming. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is the method most widely used to assess environmental impacts of agricultural products. Current LCA methodology and studies tend to favour high-input intensive agricultural systems and misrepresent less intensive agroecological systems such as organic agriculture. LCA assesses agroecological systems inadequately for three reasons: (1) a lack of operational indicators for three key environmental issues; (2) a narrow perspective on functions of agricultural systems; and (3) inconsistent modelling of indirect effects.

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Fig. 1: Annual number of peer-reviewed English-language articles published from 1990–2018 using LCA to assess agricultural and food systems.
Fig. 2: Agricultural systems and landscapes can be classified along a continuum from high-input intensive to agroecological.

Jacques Baudry (a); Valérie Viaud (b)

Fig. 3: LCA and ecosystem services conceptual frameworks.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Berndes, M. Corson and R. Clift for helpful comments on the manuscript. We thank S. Bitteur and M. Delabuis for help with graphics and J. Baudry and V. Viaud for landscape photographs. Thanks to H. van Nispen van Sevenaer for inspiration.

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H.M.v.d.W. and M.T.K. had the initial idea; H.M.v.d.W., M.T.K. and C.C. contributed ideas and wrote the Perspective.

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Correspondence to Hayo M. G. van der Werf.

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van der Werf, H.M.G., Knudsen, M.T. & Cederberg, C. Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessment. Nat Sustain 3, 419–425 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0489-6

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