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Life cycle assessment of the dairy sector

Calculating the environment impact of dairy through environmental life cycle assessments

Life Cycle Assessment methodology was originally used to analyse industrial process chains but has been adapted over the past 20 years to assess the environmental impacts of agriculture, although to date, it has mainly been employed in arable agriculture and less in livestock farming.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an acknowledged environmental impact assessment tool to calculate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of dairy production. The LCA method systematically analyses production systems to account for all inputs and outputs for a specific product and production system within a specified system boundary. The system boundary is largely dependent on the goal of the study. The reference unit that denotes the useful output is known as the functional unit and has a defined quantity and quality, for example a litre of milk of a defined fat and protein content.

LCAs and carbon footprints

A product carbon footprint is based on LCA methodology. Greenhouse gases are all gaseous substances for which the IPCC has defined a global warming potential coefficient. They are expressed in mass-based CO2 equivalents (CO2e). The main agricultural greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4).

The product carbon footprint is the sum of the greenhouse gases emitted throughout the life cycle of a product within a set of system boundaries, in a specific application and in relation to a defined amount of a specified product. 

One example of a carbon footprint is obtained by calculating all the GHGs emitted during the production of one litre of semi-skimmed milk, packed in a specific type of paper carton, up to the point when the milk leaves the manufacturing plant gate.

The reference unit that denotes the useful output is known as the functional unit and has a defined quantity and quality, for example a litre of fresh milk of a defined fat and protein content in a defined type of package.

Other environmental impacts are commonly included when doing a full LCA (e.g. water use, land use, toxicity, eutrophication, biodiversity), whereas a carbon footprint only includes the climate impact category. The decision to calculate the carbon footprint of a product is a conscious decision to focus on only one environmental indicator.

A Common Carbon Footprint Approach for Dairy

To help the global dairy sector, from farming to processing, to have a robust benchmark for calculating carbon footprints for pre-competitive discussions and to make continued progress in both researching and applying new technologies in effectively reducing the sector’s GHG emissions, IDF developed the methodology ‘A Common Carbon Footprint Approach for Dairy: The IDF Guide to Standard Lifecycle Assessment Methodology for the Dairy Sector.’

Addressing the water challenge

The issues of water and agriculture are intertwined – without water there is no farming. Therefore, to tackle the challenge of food security, the challenge of water has to be met first.

In this context of global water scarcity and food security concerns, water footprinting is emerging as an important sustainability indicator in the agricultural and food sectors. There are different alternatives in methodologies alongside ongoing efforts to develop a standard in water footprinting. Water footprints can focus on different goals, such as water quantity or quality. Meanwhile, different tools exist to understand and account for water use along the supply chains and risks related to it.

LCAs for water footprints

A product water footprint is usually based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, incorporating both direct and indirect water uses.

Calculation of the water footprint of a product using LCA methodology should be based on the ISO 14000 series, specifically ISO 14040, ISO 14044, and ISO 14046.  In conformance with ISO14046 and to answer the needs around the issue of water, the assessment should take into consideration water consumption and water degradation.

A decision to calculate the water footprint of a product is a conscious decision to focus on one environmental issue at a time. 

Other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions or land use should be taken into consideration, when possible, to address the environmental impacts of the global dairy sector in a holistic manner.

IDF work on dairy water footprint stemmed from a the need to clarify figures resulting from the differing methodologies and data is leading to inconsistent results, incongruent interpretation, uncertainty in decision-making, and communication challenges. 

 

This represented a real danger of confusion and contradiction, which in turn could create a false impression that the sector is failing to actively engage with the issue of water consumption and degradation.

IDF guidelines on water footprints for the dairy sector:

  • Increase understanding about the concept of water footprint assessment
  • Provide transparency about the product’s water profile within its life cycle
  • Enable monitoring, quantification, and evaluation of the potential environmental impacts related to water use from cradle to the manufacturing gate out, both in terms of quantity and quality
  • Orient the identification of “hotspots” (areas targeted for consumption reduction)
  • Measuring progress on the actions taken to improve efficiency.

For more information, read Bulletin of the IDF N° 486/ 2017: The IDF Guide to Water Footprint Methodology for the Dairy Sector

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