15 Dec 2017

Environmental impact of foods

RIVM study of the sustainability of Dutch food consumption

For some years Blonk Consultants has been involved in a project on sustainable food consumption run by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Working with RIVM we developed a method for monitoring the environmental impact of Dutch food consumption. The method assesses several of the impacts of Dutch food consumption, including its contribution to climate change, land use, water use, acidification and eutrophication. The purpose of the RIVM project is to collect information and monitor trends in sustainability of the Dutch food consumption system. We began calculating the environmental impact of various foods for RIVM in 2015. Recently we were able to considerably expand the scope of the study, including the addition of products with a large water footprint.

Food consumption survey and life cycle assessment

For this study the life cycle assessment (LCA) research method has been combined with data from the Dutch National Food Consumption Survey (DNFCS). An LCA gives insight into the environmental impact of products over their whole life cycle. The DNFCS has been collecting periodic data on food consumption and the nutritional status of the Dutch population since 1987. A range of food products have been selected from the DNFCS that together account for 80% of the environmental impact of Dutch food consumption. The selected foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, dairy products, meat, meat substitutes, bread, cakes and sweet biscuits, alcoholic drinks and composite products such as tomato sauce and sausage rolls. Environmental data (life cycle inventories) have been collected for these foods.

Farm to fork

The LCAs are carried out under the farm-to-fork principle. This means that all the stages in the life cycle of the products are assessed: cultivation of the crops, transport, processing, packing, storage, retail and consumption. The last stage, consumption, also includes cooling, any preparation and cooking of the foods, food losses and waste treatment of the packaging materials. The assessment takes account of food losses throughout the whole life cycle. Pesticides are not included in this study, because unfortunately current data quality is poor.

Expanded scope and increased data reliability

For the most recent study we were able to considerably expand the scope of our research and improve the representativeness of the data. The study now includes products with a large water footprint. The water footprint is derived from data on the use of irrigation water and the level of water scarcity in the country where the product is cultivated or produced. Water flows are regionalised for calculation purposes. This brings the study into line with the most recent LCA impact model, ReCiPe (ReCiPe 2016), which was recently upgraded by including the water footprint as an additional environmental indicator. In addition, the Blonk Crop Mix Tool is used to determine the market mixes (product provenance).

Key insights into the sustainability of Dutch food consumption

RIVM pulls all this information together to monitor the sustainability of food consumption in the Netherlands. It is the first project to collect information and acquire knowledge about the sustainability of Dutch food consumption. The inclusion of all the data in a single, comprehensive and manageable database makes it easy to monitor trends in the future. Importantly, this also reveals the environmental hotspots in our food system. This RIVM project therefore makes a valuable contribution to better understanding the sustainability of our food consumption system.

Read more about this research

More information

If you have any questions about this study or would like a life cycle assessment of your product or products, don’t hesitate to contact Jasper Scholten at jasper@blonkconsultants.nl or call +31 (0)182 579970.