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Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment

For Science Week, Research Officer Lael Walsh talks about her work using Life Cycle Assessment to determine hotspots of environmental impact in horticulture products and systems

Life Cycle Assessment is an environmental assessment and management tool to evaluate the impact of a product or system. It commonly involves collecting and modelling information so skills in developing surveys and analysing data are very useful.

Although it is called ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ (LCA) it actually only assesses the inputs, processes and outputs directly related to the boundaries set by a study. So for a study on a product like one bag of crisps the LCA boundaries could be from ‘cradle’ (when you start making the crisps) to ‘retail’ (when it reaches the supermarket). In this instance the impact of what you do with the crisps in your home is not considered.

It is a very useful tool to understand where there are ‘environmental hotspots’ or areas of high environmental impact in making that product. This is useful because it can indicate where environmental emissions like carbon or airborne emissions can be lowered. And it helps businesses and growers take action to address these hotspots.

LCA was originally designed to assess industrial systems. More recently LCA has been used extensively for impact assessment of agricultural systems, and is increasingly being used to assess the production of various food products. It is claimed to have been first used by Coca Cola in 1969.

Here in Teagasc Ashtown, the Horticulture Development Department is engaging in further research on sustainability. It is generating information on environmental impact using LCA for horticulture products and production systems, such as spinach growing.

Two projects are currently underway; (i) the first one is funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and will quantify environmental emissions associated with certain vegetable products, (ii) the second is supported internally by Teagasc to use LCA to investigate Irish organic horticulture systems. This is useful because Ireland has a much lower proportion of land under organic production than other EU countries. Increased information in this space could highlight the competitive advantage in terms of environmental sustainability of Irish products, and support the uptake of organic horticulture production by Irish growers.

Potential inputs, processes and outputs of an LCA

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