Wanted! Better methods to guide the agroecological transition of our food systems

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Hayo van der Werf, Marie Trydeman Knudsen, Christel Cederberg

Agriculture and food contribute greatly to climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and emission of synthetic chemicals, which have consequences for ecosystems and human health. Transformative redesign of agri-food systems based on agroecological principles is thus urgently needed. The three authors of this paper are agronomists who have analysed environmental impacts of agricultural systems for many years using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the method most widely used to assess environmental impacts of agriculture and food.

Intensive farming provides higher yields, but organic practices deliver other benefits. Illustration by Yen Strandqvist.

The idea for this paper was born during the 2016 LCA Food conference, when Marie Trydeman Knudsen and Hayo van der Werf discussed their dissatisfaction with LCA’s inadequate assessment of agricultural systems based on agroecological principles, exemplified by organic agriculture. At the time, it was little more than a gut feeling. They decided to prepare and present a paper on the subject for the 2018 LCA Food conference. Somewhat to their surprise, it was well received by the LCA food community, although not by everyone. Marie and Hayo then asked their colleague and friend Christel Cederberg to join them in writing a perspective paper for Nature Sustainability.

Organic vegetable production mixing leek and Chinese cabbage. Photo by Didier Oudart.

The writing process began through discussions during regular video conferences. Early in our analysis of current agri-food LCA studies, it became obvious to us that LCA still lacks crucial indicators to quantify environmental impacts of food systems. From LCA studies published in scientific journals, it was striking to see how rarely three urgent challenges - land degradation, biodiversity decline and pesticide effects on human health and ecosystems – were assessed. These challenges are closely related to how we farm and produce our food. On the road to future sustainable food systems, we must have tools and methods to analyse whether our actions to improve soil management and preserve biodiversity are on the right track. As 2019 passed while working on the paper, our concerns were further supported by two reports from the IPCC and IPBES that highlighted on-going global land degradation and decline in biodiversity. In January 2020, 73 researchers called for a roadmap for insect conservation and recovery in Nature Ecology & Evolution, including actions such as phasing out pesticide use. Similar ideas are also present in European Union calls for a Green Deal, which includes a European agriculture that depends much less on pesticides than it does today.

Pigs in agroecology-based systems have access to the outdoors. Photo by Florence Carreras.

These are indeed the times for questioning how global food systems have developed and, more importantly, for finding pathways towards sustainable agriculture and food systems. LCA is a useful tool for assessing agricultural systems and food chains, but both its methodology and application need to be developed further and supplemented, for example with new ideas from the research community working on ecosystem services assessment. We hope our paper will help the LCA community set its research agenda on how to improve LCA and combine it with other frameworks to better assess environmental impacts and the multifunctionality of agricultural systems.

Go to the profile of Hayo van der Werf

Hayo van der Werf

Researcher, French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment

I am a researcher at INRAE, the French National Research institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment. My research topic is the environmental assessment of agricultural production systems. I mainly use life cycle assessment methodology. I am particularly interested in organic agriculture and more generally in agroecological systems.

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