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Environmental impact of our food plate

Diving into the environmental impacts of food items with Agribalyse 3.0 and coupling them with nutritional data.

How to move towards a truly sustainable consumption? It is necessary to combine nutritional and environmental information to ensure a healthy and sustainable diet.

The objective of the new AGRIBALYSE® 3.0 database is to provide the environmental impacts of food items for which we also have nutritional information. Thus, AGRIBALYSE® 3.0 fills an important gap: the database provides environmental information for each food item, from « farm to fork ». Combined with the CIQUAL nutritional database, it is the foundation to build scenarios towards diets that are both healthy – nutritional indicators – and sustainable – environmental indicators.

A database towards a sustainable food supply

Looking at both CIQUAL and AGRIBALYSE®, we now have the nutritional and environmental properties per unit of mass for 2500 food items.

These two combined databases are a scientific basis for better knowledge of food properties in France, combining nutritional and environmental criteria. They open up a promising field of research and innovation around sustainable food.

  • Food industry companies will be able to improve their revenues while taking into account their environmental impacts;
  • Food service companies have new insights to make their menus and recipes truly sustainable;
  • Public authorities can be use the data to inform debates in the policy arena.
  • We all, as consumers, can play an active and informed part towards a more sustainable world through our most basic daily actions: eating.

The AGRIBALYSE® Programme

Serving sustainable food for almost 10 years, the AGRIBALYSE® Programme offers a reference methodology and a panel of robust data to assess the environmental impact of agricultural and food products. The project is jointly steered by ADEME and INRAe. The implementation and gradual construction of the programme required more than a hundred experts and scientists from the agricultural, agrifood and environmental sectors.

Version 3.0 is innovative as, for the first time, it makes it possible to trace the food beyond the processing stage of agrifood industries; it also encompasses downstream stages such as packaging, transport, distribution, retail, preparation at consumer and waste disposal. It includes « inedible losses » (bones, peels, etc.), as well as mass changes linked to cooking.

It enables the computation of the environmental impact indicators (climate change, land use, eutrophication, water consumption …) of 2,500 food items « from field to plate ». Know more on the methodological approach.

Sayari coordinated the development of version 3.0, together with Gingko21 and Blonk Consultants.

Computation of environmental impacts

The calculations are based on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method. 

It makes it possible to describe the resources used and the processes involved throughout the life cycle of a product, enables to compute the  environmental impacts throughout the production and value chain. LCAs allow the study of multiple categories of impacts.

The LCA method used in AGRIBALYSE is the method recommended  by the European Commission known as the «EF-Environmental Footprint»  method.

Life cycle of a food item at a glance

In the graph opposite, we see agricultural production, then processing, transport and logistics – including distribution and retail – as well as packaging production. At consumer, the product can be cooked, reheated, or on the contrary kept cold before consumption. End of life includes waste treatment of packaging and food. [1]

NB: In the graph, the retail stage is included in « transport & logistics ». However, it is presented separately in the results below.

[1] In AGRIBALYSE, only unedible losses (bones, peelings, pits ..) are accounted for.

Two examples are shown below for cheeses and pizzas.

Results – Comparison of environmental impacts for 3 cheese types along their life cycle

Impacts are provided per kilogram of cheese. The attached graph shows the results for 3 cheeses:

  • Abondance (hard cow’s cheese)
  • Blue cheese made from cow’s milk (soft cow’s cheese)
  • Cheese buche » (soft cheese from goat milk)

Impact varies depending on the product. Several factors come into play.

  • The type of milk used, cow’s or goat’s milk, will greatly impact the results. This is observed in the difference at the agricultural phase.
  • For the two cow’s milk cheeses, the impact of the agricultural phase is different: it takes 4.5 kg of milk to produce Abondance compared to 4.0 kg of milk for Blue cheese. This is related to the water content, which is higher for Blue cheese (46%) than for Abondance (37%).
  • Another important factor comes into play at the level of the processing phase. The type of cheese (hard vs. soft) will modify the environmental impacts of the product. For example, blue cheese and goat cheese buche, both soft cheeses obtain similar results for the processing phase. Conversely, Abundance, a hard cheese, has a much more impactful processing phase as the production of hard cheeses are more energy consuming.

Generally, the environmental impact of a cheese is mostly due to the agricultural and processing stages. The other stages have a limited impact on the final result.

Results – contribution of ingredients for two types of pizzas

Environmental impacts of “Bolognese Pizza” and  “4 Seasons Pizza” have been normalized to 100% in order to compare the contribution of ingredients.

Ingredients of animal origin have a greater contribution, and this is linked to the importance of the agricultural phase and the processing phase of those products. The importance of the processing phase was highlighted above in the specific case of cheese.

With regards to the agricultural phase, animal products such as milk and meat combine environmental impacts at two levels:

  • On the one hand, animal production itself, with emissions related to digestion (methane emissions), animal waste…
  • On the other hand, upstream, the production of plants to feed animals: fodder, soybean cake …

We also observe significant variations in environmental impacts depending on the type of animal raw material, and especially the type of meat: beef, pork, chicken, etc.

Link to CIQUAL nutritional data

The Agribalyse data is linked to the CIQUAL nutritional data through a common nomenclature. It is thus now possible to associate the nutritional and environmental indicators of a product.

Each food item is characterized in CIQUAL through 61 indicators, called « constituents », covering macro- and micro-nutrients. These constituents are provided per 100 grams of product.

Table below presents an excerpt of the 4 constituents of the cheeses:

Components include:

  • Calcium, which is essential for strong bones and teeth. It is also involved in muscle control, blood coagulation…
  • Vitamin B12, anti-stress and anti-fatigue, necessary for protein synthesis and cell multiplication.
  • Proteins allow the construction and maintenance of muscles and tissues.
  • Saturated fatty acids constitute a reserve of energy and is necessary for the manufacture of cell membranes. However, they should be consumed in moderation.
  • Sodium, responsible for the distribution of water in our body, it is also essential for muscle contraction. An excess of sodium can have harmful consequences for the human body. Its consumption should be limited to 8g per day for men and 6.5g per day for women and children.

What’s next ?

AGRIBALYSE® 3.0 only contains data for  » average French  » food items.  This is a first step. Organic or labeled products, for example, are not yet in the database. The database will be enriched over time, in a programme that is constantly evolving.

For more information, please refer to the corresponding ADEME page (in French)

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